29 June – 2 July 2016
My initial plan for Tajikistan was biking the Pamir highway from Sary-Tash to Dushambe and back to Sary-Tash via A372 – around 1,700k. However, after getting the Tajik visa, a guy in the hostel told me the A372 border was closed to foreigners. Another guy knew an alternative route going further north along the Uzbekistan border though it was much longer, allegedly on bad roads and required taxis to avoid crossing into Uzbekistan. I decided against it, as I would later visit the region on the Uzbek side after a loop north to Kazakhstan. Other bicyclists told me, that the roads to the interesting valleys and after Khorog (on the border to Afghanistan) were very bad for hundreds of kilometres, which didn’t sound like fun for the bike and me. So I was left with a trip to Khorog and back though I would leave the question about visiting the valleys up in the open until I had talked to more bicyclists along the way.
Going to Pamir in Tajikistan there is only one road south via Sary-Tash and since I didn’t want to backtrack I decided to get a ride to Sary-Tash and start from there. I had talked to several shared taxi drivers the day before departure to get an idea about the price, though I knew that it all depended on the actual driver. I got up at 7 and after a big breakfast and packing/storing some stuff at the hostel, I biked the few kilometres to the taxi area where I arrived at 8.45. A 7-person minibus would go to Sary-Tash – the driver said we were leaving at 9, so I should hurry to disassemble my bike and get it on the bus. I’ve been travelling too long to fall for that trick, so I kept asking for a price. After initially asking 5,000 Som (about USD 70) and afterwards 2,800 Som, we agreed on 800 Som (USD 11.50) - the normal foreigner price for 2 seats, which seemed fair as the bike took up some space. I took the bike apart (including the front rack), put in in the bus and waited – the bus would of course not leave until full, which by the number of people could be many hours if at all that day.
Another passenger brought 3 big bags of empty plastic bottles and the driver had to put down a seat and reorganise my bike and luggage. Shortly after, he told me to pay 1,200 Som for the extra seat. I told him the bottle-guy should pay for an extra seat like me, but he pretended not to understand. With few passengers and no longer trust in the driver, I decided to start biking, hoping for a ride when I got out of town. However, as I got the bike reassembled an old man in a private car offered to take me for 800 Som. We got everything in his car and waited for 2 more passengers, finally leaving at 11.45. It was of course annoying to wait for 3 hours but it was interesting to study the local culture. No hard feelings from the first driver and every new person arriving greeting each other warmly like family (though me only once) – friendly, smiling and cheerful people making jokes and having fun across ages and genders; a very nice experience.
At a gas station we paid the driver and I noticed the locals only paid around 200/250 Som but I didn’t care – I was happy with the 800 Som which was my initial maximum price. It was a lovely day driving uphill through the valleys towards Sary-Tash. After 2 hours the speed went down and shortly after we had to take an engine cooling break at a gas station. Driving another 20k, the car stopped halfway up a mountain so we waited for a while and changed coolant. Going 10-15 k/h uphill we finally made the last mountain and arrived in Sary-Tash at 17 more than 2 hours delayed, but I didn’t care as there was still time to head out of town and find a camping spot. I could not cross into Tajikistan before the following day anyway.
On a beautiful late afternoon, I zig-zagged my way south out of town on a paved road with lots of bumps and potholes - the stunning snow-capped Pamir mountains in front of me. First open grassland and after 15k locals living in their Yurts – many kids/teens irrationally begging for water. They had the stream and a short ride into Sary-Tash, while I had 100k over the mountains to the nearest small town. It was just above 3,000m elevation and only a small incline but I had “no push” going 10 k/h – part of the reason probably that I had only biked 5 days during the last 25 days. After 27k, I was stamped out of Kyrgyzstan and shortly after, I camped in no man’s land in a ramshackle building without a roof but at least the walls were protecting me from the wind.
I had a great night’s sleep at 3,300m and enjoyed the beautiful scenery over breakfast. The bad road soon got worse as I biked a few flattish kilometres through a valley, before the ascent towards the pass at 4,282m. The first part not too steep and therefore (except or a few short stretches) bike-able despite being dirt with lots of stones/rocks and pebbles. The last part had 6-8% steep sections so I had to walk 3k of the last 4k to the top. Something I have never done before and certainly not the way I would have liked to get to the pass, but at least I got there myself. Not steeper than other hills but my zigzagging technique didn’t work on a road like this where stones/rocks stopped the bike and pebbles made it lose grip and slide when I tried to start again. It took 4½ hours (!) to do the 18k to the top, which wasn’t interesting anyway. A couple of kilometres down to the unfriendly Tajik immigration, where I was asked for 400 Somini (USD 62) for a (ridiculous) disinfection fee of my shoes (what about tires, tent, etc?). The border is notorious for scams, so I declined and they angrily told me to leave which I happily did. With a strong tailwind, I constantly braked the 14k downhill on a horrible dirt/pebble washingboard road before I again had asphalt under the wheels – it was bumpy and potholed and often so soft that it stuck to the wheels and slowed me down, but at least it was paved. 13k back uphill to 4,200m and then down towards Karakul Lake. It was only 18 and I had done only 56k (the shortest daily distance ever?), but as the area ahead looked completely open, I camped behind a dirt pile about halfway down – that way I could also enjoy the views in the morning. I’ve had no problems during the day, but camping at 4,100m my pulse was racing and I had trouble sleeping – also because the wind was pounding the tent until midnight. A couple of headache pills helped my body relax and I finally got some sleep.
I woke at 6 but slept in until 7.30 where I got up to beautiful views and a quiet morning. However, as I left at 9.45 heavy rain moved in from the east. Despite the bad road, I managed to out-bike it and arrive in Karakul village an hour later – except for the road a very isolated community. After getting water at the village pump, I had a lovely long, flattish ride along the lake, before the ascent towards the next pass at 4,635m (my highest ever on a bike). Asphalt turned into a 25k dirt/stone/pebble washingboard road. A few times, I could ride in the side but the bike unavoidably got some serious beating. One pinching can damage the rim, the tires, the spokes or cause flat tires, so it was a small miracle that nothing happened despite many pinches per minute. When it got steep, I managed to bike some sections but I had to walk the bike about 1k on the worst sections. Many cyclist had given me the distance to the top but as I had passed them all, I camped after 80k at 4,500m as I had no idea if it was another 2k or 6k to the top. Four upper body layers and two below could hardly keep me warm when sitting still and eating, so I treasured getting in my sleeping bag at 20.30. Despite two headache pills at midnight I hardly got any sleep but when I got up at 7.30 my pulse was down to normal. Difficult not to appreciate life with morning views like this and an easy decision not to go back to live a “normal life”.
1½k uphill to the pass and then 4-5k downhill before the road got paved and somewhat better. A beautiful 70k ride through different valleys along rivers with multi-coloured mountains all around. A strong southern headwind kept my speed down, so I was happy it was a gradual downhill most of the way to Murghab, which I reached mid afternoon after 230k. I had met a number of cyclists along the way and everybody confirmed the bad valley roads and less interesting main road to Khorog. The owner of the town’s hotel confirmed this, so I decided to skip the headwindy, mountainous ride to Khorog and take a shared taxi back to Osh. I had seen 8-10 cars per day, so there was no guarantee of a shared taxi every day. However, there was one spot left with a Kyrgyz family going back to Osh an hour later – it seemed like fate so I took it. It was supposed to take 8-9 hours but once again the car broke down and we got delayed 4-5 hours arriving back in Osh at 5 in the morning.
The trip to Tajikistan became much shorter than initially planned and very short compared to the effort getting the visa in Bishkek. Still I was very happy to have done it being (one of) the highlight(s) on this leg of my trip from Singapore.