On the Roof of the World: the Pamir Highway

The existence of an asphalted road running through a plateaux at 4000 m of altitude makes Tajikistan and in particular the Pamir Highway particularly famous between cyclists. It came therefore as no surprise that in Khorog, the biggest town in East Tajikistan where the Pamir mountains begin to appear, our hostel, the Pamir Lodge, was full of cyclists and other overlanders: there was a French couple riding a tandem, there were Zigor and Maria, a Spanish-Basque couple who rode all the way from Spain (and never do the mistake of saying that Zigor is Spanish, he’s purely Basque), there was Adam, a motorcyclist that I already met in Bukhara who has been on the road for 7 years and that just rode the Bartang valley, and many other. The Pamir Lodge, with its beautiful garden, was the perfect spot to listen to the stories of all these people and to relax after South Tajikistan. After two days in Khorog it was however time to leave, a gentle, but very long, climb was leading straight into the Pamir plateaux, with its desert landscapes, but I was not alone, Guillaume and Sebastian were still riding with me. And the Pamir highway managed to offer us not only breathtaking landscapes, but also a lot of welcome surprises. The first of these surprises was in Jelondy, a village at 3500 m of altitude: Zigor and Maria have joined us along the road and the five of us were invited for lunch by a Pamir family that later invited us to stay also for the night. We were quick to accept the invitation, particularly because we wanted to try the hot spring that were in the village; we spent there more than an hour resting our legs and speaking about our trips and our future plans.

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Rejoining with Zigor and Maria along the road.

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In Jelondy.

Another surprise came the following evening, after a day where we climbed our first pass above 4000 m. While looking for a place to camp, a house a little bit far from the road appeared, it was completely isolated from everything, and we supposed it to be abandoned. To our surprise a man and a dog came out to greet us, a family was living on such a remote and isolated place! I was particularly exhausted from the day (we rode 65 km, mostly uphill and under the snow. The last 5 km before the pass seemed to never end: climbing a 10 % gradient, at more than 4000 m of altitude, under the snow on a not asphalted road, we stopped every 2 minutes to try to breath properly), but I just couldn’t believe someone was actually living there and I still remember the big happy smile on Zigor face when we were invited inside: it doesn’t happen often to have the possibility to see how people live in such remote places. Bread, butter, milk, yoghurt and çay was what they were living on and this is what we were offered. Strangely the family had no animals, so all these products came from Alichur, a village 30 km far (and they had no car). And, as if all this had not been enough, when we were shown the room were we would have slept, we found another person already sleeping there: it was Eloise, a French girl I already met in Bukhara, who was now doing some trekking in Tajikistan and also thought that the house would be abandoned.

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Leaving the house in the morning.

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People are living there.

The following morning Zigor and Maria went straight to Alichur, whereas I, with all the others, followed a secondary road that brought us to Bulukulu and Yashil Kul. It was a wonderful two-day detour along dirty roads, riding along desert landscapes with snowy mountains and salt lakes never far away, the feeling of remoteness being absolute. Also yaks made their appearance and in the night we camped along a river with an open-air hot spring all for ourselves.

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The road to Yashil Kul.

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Yashil Kul. We arrived at the lake exactly when the sun came out.

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Camping at the hot spring.

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The scarcity of villages along the way meant that, despite the enormous quantity of food we bought in Khorog, we were running out of it. Murghab, that with 5000 inhabitants is the biggest village after Khorog, was the place where we bought other food. Visiting Murghab and its funny bazar, filled only with containers, I wondered if it makes sense for such places to exist at all, a thought I had for the first time when I saw people living in the house in the middle of nowhere where we slept a few nights earlier.

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Camping after Murghab.

By that time I was getting used to the altitude, the cold was however something I couldn’t get used to; at night water would normally freeze and my summer sleeping bag was clearly not up to the task. I somehow managed to get some warm by wrapping an aluminium blanket around my sleeping bag and I learned that at 4000 m nights get well below freezing, even in summer. Next time I will not send home my winter equipment for sure, my gore-tex and fleece jacket are other things I really missed, lesson learned. And things were not going to improve because after Murghab we had, again, a long and gentle climb that brought us to the Akbaital Pass, that with its 4650 m was the highest point of the Pamir Highway (and quite likely of my whole trip).

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Another cold night. The fire didn’t warm us too much.

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Not far from the top of the Akbaital pass.

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Meeting with cyclists and other travellers was of course not only restricted to Khorog, every day we would met some cyclists or a group of motorcyclist would pass us. We always stopped to chat and it was a great way to know about other travellers around us; it was also quite effective and we called this flow of information ‘Radio Pamir’. It didn’t take long to receive, via Radio Pamir of course, news from Zigor and Maria: we learned that they were one day ahead of us and later we have been told that they were taking a rest day in Karakol, the last Tajik village before the border. We arrived at their homestay at lunch time and we immediately decided to stay there for the night, a half day break and some good food were exactly what we needed (and I was particularly grateful to spend a warm night inside, instead of getting cold inside my sleeping bag). It was again an afternoon in good company, a sort of revival of our afternoon spent together in Jelondy, this time with the added bonus of fresh jam and yak butter, together with a great dinner.

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Yaks at Karakol lake.

We headed together towards the border, and after the Tajik border post there were 20 km of no man’s land, mainly downhill on a very bad road, where we met two cyclists from New Zealand and a German walker: he walked all the way from Germany with his dog and has been refused entry into China because of the dog, so now he was going to Tajikistan and try to sneak illegally into China through the mountains. He looked like a very tough guy and the fact that he crossed the desert in Kazakhstan in winter, with temperature of minus 25°C, confirms that; I really liked him, it was certainly one of the most interesting people I met on the trip, even though we spoke only shortly. We swapped maps (he gave me a Kyrgyz map and I gave him my very detailed map of the Pamirs which hopefully might be a further help for his plan of sneaking into China, I really hope that he succeeded) and he also gave me the last book he read (adding that ‘books are like food for me’), ‘The Places in Between’ by Rory Stewart, an excellent reading, which incidentally talks about a man who walked from Herat to Kabul with a dog shortly after the fall of the Talibans.

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At the top of the pass that marks the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

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The very first few km in Kyrgyzstan were exactly how I expected the country to be: we were literally surrounded by huge green fields, dotted with yurts and horses, snowy mountains behind us, with the famous Pik Lenin and Pik Kommunist clearly distinguishable (both over 7000 m in altitude), and green mountains in front of us.

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Looking at the snowy mountains we left behind. The arid landscapes of Tajikistan are over.

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Green, yurts and horses.

It took us less than three days to cover the remaining 200 km to Osh, the road was mainly going down, passing through villages that looked like ‘a big farm’, to quote Guillaume, and that were full of waving children. In Osh we checked in at Osh Guesthouse, not a great place, but cheap and with a (slow) wi-fi connection. It was time to say goodbye to Guillaume, Sebastian, Zigor and Maria, we were all taking different routes and, after one week of rest in Osh, a pretty ugly city to be fair, I was ready to start riding again towards Bishkek.

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