Ever since abandaning my plans of a long bike tour in 2014, I have wanted to see this part of the world from the saddle. Finally, it became a reality during the past two weeks.
Just before flying to Dushanbe, I discovered that it is possible to apply online for Tajik e-Visa, with the Gorno-Badakshan autonomous region permit (GBAO). Since getting the latter previously involved visiting some sort of office in Dushanbe, the e-Visa had the potential of saving me 1-2 days. Although it said that processing was 2 work days, I applied the day before flying, and luckily enough received the visa pdf just in time. The document itself did not look very official – but it turned out to work. No problem at the airport, or any of numerous police check points.
Arriving in Dushanbe was a depressing experience. The city was very run down, in a Soviet kind of way, and pretty much everything seemed dysfunctional. I set out on a quest to send some post cards. Locating the post cards was easy (took one hour). Stamps were another deal. First post office said that they would have stamps the next day. Taxi ride to the “main” post office took some time. There they reluctantly sold me stamps. (For future reference: TouchNote – very cool mobile app, which generated physical post cards).
Next day, I took a taxi with my boxed bike to the Uzbek border. Within an hour of assembling, I was off. And within another two hours, it was baking hot, approaching 40 C. I cycled past farmlands, and aluminum plant, and the ruins of the ancient fortress at Hisor.
Cycling through Dushanbe was much easier in terms of traffic than I anticipated, and soon a slow climb started – which would eventually take me to the Pamir plataue at 4000 m.
In the afternoon I caught up with a Dutch cyclist, and we asked some locals if we could pitch our tents in their apple orchard.
Next morning I woke early, and being keen on getting riding, said bye to my new-found Dutch friend. The uphil continued, and things changed into a foothill landscape, as the rode got worse.
On the third day, the road had turned into a jeepable sandy gravel path, but the scenery was fantastic, with many sorts of rock formations, along a river gorge. Day four was a climbing day, which took me up a 3200 m pass, from where it was all down-hill to the town of Kalai-Kum, on the Afghan border. Before rolling down, I filled up bottles from small streams. Mint was growing abundantly, and the water had a distinct mint taste!
During the long down-hill, my front tube literally exploded (this has happended three times lately, and I will never again juse Continental MTB tubes). The whole business was a bit exciting, with the prospect of falling several hundred meters, if not being able to stay on the road.
Kalai-Kum was an interesting place. Whereas all other villages thus far had a sleepy air around them, this town seemed rich and alive. Perhaps it is the trade with various vegetable extracts from across the Afghan Wakhan that has resulted in this wealth?
From Kalai-Kum the ride continued along the Panj river, which constitutes the border to Afghanistan. Looking across the river, one directly realized the difference in standard between the countries: Tajikistan had houses, Afghanistan mud shacks. I was cycling on a road (more or less), the Afghan side had a iffy-looking path clinging to the rock face. The crags were either way looking like the ones one would expect snow leopards to hang out in, but of course I did not see one.
Instead I met a Polish man on a scooter (!!!). He had just crossed over from Afghanistan. He was not very impressed, and said it felt utterly unsafe. Close to Mazar-i-Sharif, he had been arrested by Americans, who hold him during a whole day, after which various phone calls made it unlikely that he constituted a threat.
Next stop was Khorog, known as the “capital of Pamir”. Most cyclists stay at the Pamir lodge, but I found out that very many people there were sick, so I went to the next-by Lalmo homestay – which was one of the nicest places (tent excluded). There I met Martin, who had been riding his motorbike around the world during the past 4 years, covering some 400 000 km.
From Khorog I hitched a ride with jeep across the river, into Afghanistan, where I ate a late lunch/early dinner with another traveller whom I met at the Lalmo’s. There was a market, but then not really much more to do, so we went back and spent time in the waterfront park in Khorog instead, from where we watched youths swim in the rapids of the river.
Leaving Khorog, the climbing up to the actual Pamir plataue begun. Fortunately I was spared from any altitude problems throughout the trip, but frequently faced with rather horrible head wind (although the predominant wind direction in Pamir is W/N).
Arriving in Alichur, I was utterly exhausted from the head wind, and found a rather shabby homestay. Next morning, it was still windy, and I did not feel very well. However, after climbing a small pass, the wind was replaced by sun, and an extremely long and gentle downhill ride to Murghab (where the wind reappeared).
Murghab is one of the strangest places I have been to. There were some other travellers at the Hotel Pamir, and I made friends with a British couple my age, living in Hokkaido. It turned out that we shared a lot of common interests and experiences – foremost cycling and skiing. As opposed to other places so far, the food at Hotel Pamir was delicious, and I decided to take a rest day. In the bazaar – consisting of Euro-containers doubling as shacks, I got hold of a spare tube. It was some cheap Chinese stuff, and did not inspire much hope. However, it lasted without a single puncture for the remainder of the trip.
Next after Murghab, the road offered a 4600 m pass, which was very easy getting up. However, going down was horrible, as the gravel had an awful washboard structure for the next 15 km. In fact, I cycled most of the distance in the sandy mud next to the road, to avoid the shaking. Despite the bad surface and high pass, I managed to put in a long day, and made it to the Karakul lake, where I a stayed with three Mongol Rally teams, overlooking high peaks and the beatiful lake Karakul.
Next morning, weather was not very good. There were a mix of rain and hail storms, but after the first pass of the day, it got much better. The second pass took me to the Kyrgyz border, after 20 km of cycling in no-mans-land. The Kyrgyz border guards made their own situation much more complicated than it needed be, but eventually I was rolling again, heading for Sary-Tash.
After a tasty meal at a guesthouse, I agreed with a man to pick me up at the Chinsese border pass, 75 km east and 1000 m up in the air. The ride was doable the same afternoon/evening, thanks to an extreme tail wind. I left everthing apart from bike to be light and set out – arriving just before dark. My original plan was to cross the border, and end my trip in Kashgar, which is the first city on the Chinese side. However, I found no cheap (or at least fast or uncomplicated) way to get out of Kashgar. First I would need to go to Urumqi. I could cycle there, but was not keen on 1000 km of Taklamakan desert, so options would be train (do they take bikes?) or flying. From Urumqi, it would take another three or so flight to get home. Much easier then to cycle to Osh in Kyrgyzstan and fly out of there.
The road to Osh was mainly downhill, with beautiful scenery. There was, however, a 800 m continuous climb to a pass in between. I was very lucky, as two minutes after sitting down at a restaurant at the pass, a violent thunderstorm with hail and rain broke. It lasted only 20 min, but would have been utterly unpleasant to climb in.
After the storm, the downhill continued. I pitched the tent next to a small river, and watched thunder while cooking food inside the vestibule.
The last 50 km to Osh were downhill with tail wind, and went extremely fast. Osh turned out to be a much nicer city than Dushanbe, and after leaving stuff at a hostel, I set out for the Bazaar in hunt of things to pack my bike in. I also got help from my wife, to buy a next day flight ticket. Unfortunately the cheap flights were sold out, but I got hold of a business class ticket with Turkish over Istanbul. At least comfy seasts, and access to the luxurious lounge at Istanbul Atatürk airport (from where I am writing this).
All in all, my little Pamir adventure turned out rather easy, and took just half the time I had set aside – as a result of long but slow days in the saddle. While I was very sceptical to the whole thing in Dushanbe (due to the cities depressing atmosphere), the scenery along the way made this one of my most memorable trips by bike. Its a good thing that there are plenty of other places with mountains and bad roads, perfect for touring.