The Gateway to the Pamirs

I had a real sense of anticipation as the 4 of us headed away from the city. We could happily have spent much longer with Vero and Gab but the whole reason we were in Tajikistan at all was calling us. I had first heard about the Pamir Highway from some cyclists I met when I was in Istanbul. At that point, with no cycle-touring experience under my belt it sounded incredible but, a bit of a tall order for me. However, as I edged nearer to the region I was getting more and more curious about this fabled route for cyclists: a former Soviet military road built across a desert-like plateau, a large area of which is over 4000m in altitude and surrounded by towering mountain ranges. So with this in mind we rode out of Dushanbe and started heading towards the mountains.

My bike repair session immediately backfired as I had to stop in the afternoon for a puncture (only my 2nd since Istanbul!) and to re-align some gears. By the evening, we were well clear of the city and following a vast riverbed.  After a stop for dinner in a chaihanna, with a view to die for, we set up camp in some fruit fields. Unfortunately my excitement at eating real food again (and being back on the road) also backfired as just after we set up camp I projectile vomited the aforementioned chaihanas’ delicious (but clearly a bit rich for me) food. Good start!!

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‘Le quatre’ emerging from paradise into the bright sunlight
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Mes Françaises heading out of Dushanbe
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An appropriate escort out of the city for Tajikistan Independence day
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Repairing a puncture on the first day out of the city!
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Delicious view for dinner at a roadside chaihana (tea-shop)
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Standard after dinner chai and snooze
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Explaining to Xav where I am about to projectile vomit my chicken dinner as we set up camp in a fruit field

I had joked about how lucky I had been with punctures since leaving Istanbul – and foolishly I also joked that they were just saving themselves all up for the Pamirs. Little did I know that they were just saving themselves all up for 36hrs!! The road climbed gradually along the river, which was a thick grey colour from all the silt. We sweated in the hot sun, rested as the road was blocked by huge herds of sheep and goats, and lazed in shady spots for food and tea breaks. Then I had another puncture, rear wheel this time and the hole was on the inside of the inner tube next to the rim. Patched and re-assembled Carra made 100m before the hissing sounded again. This continued throughout the course of the day. Sometimes it would give way just as we put the wheel back on. We couldn’t find the offender on the rim, this was not the place or weather for repeat phantom punctures and I got increasingly frustrated and worried that I would have to head back to Dushanbe to solve the problem. Finally, after an exhausting 6 hours of puncture patching and process of elimination, we swapped the front and back tyres, lined the rims with gaffer tape and Carra admitted defeat and kept rolling. We managed less than 20km and it was a pretty demoralizing day. Lucky then that in the evening we found a perfect camping spot by a fresh water tributary to the river, where we could have a ‘nature’s best’ wash and crack open our supply of vodka for a bakal (the nick-name we gave to a ‘little cup of vodka’, loosely based on the local lingo!).

The next day the puncture saga seemed over, and minuscule in comparison to the task of the road worker we passed. He was clearing large rocks from the road with a shovel! Just outside another village further on, we watched from our tents in the morning as 2 boys came past us collecting the dry cow pats scattered around. They would use them for fuel for fires to cook and stay warm with in the winter. As we gained altitude there was less and less vegetation. A few more days of stunning river landscapes and idyllic wild camping and we fought our way up to the first pass, a little over 3500m.

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It was at the top of a tiny hill but we were very happy about it 🙂
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Sheep herd road block
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Any excuse for a rest – sheep and dust and donkeys and shepherds and car horns!
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A little further along the road we met the road maintenance, he wasn’t that much further along the road when we passed him again the next day. Shoveling stones is a truly thankless task on a route like this.
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The day of phantom punctures. We must have changed my rear tyre more than 10 times trying to find the culprit on the rim. We managed less than 20km and I almost thought my Pamir ride was over. But the boys still managed to find it funny!
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We asked these kids how far to the next village? – they told us about 10km – they were walking back from the school there.
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Our first pass and it came after a long winding climb up into the cold. Sagirdasi Pass: 3252.8m – the highest most of us had ever been and very accurately marked out on the side a bus stop. We saw about 5 vehicles all day and none of them were buses!

On the descent from the pass it was Xav’s turn to suffer mechanical strife. With a crack in his rear rim the brakes were constantly causing his wheel to skid on the same section of the tyre and eventually it ripped a hole through it. Luckily he was carrying a spare tyre and somehow he managed the next 6 weeks with hardly any rear braking  and his skinny emergency tyre- legend!

The road down from the pass joined the Panc river and gave us our first sight of Afghanistan. This felt like a momentous point for me, a true feeling of being a long way from  home. On the other side of the river that we were now following was a country about which all my previous knowledge and understanding was based on news reports about its war. A war that my brother had twice served as a British soldier in, a war that I somehow felt some guilt and culpability for as a UK citizen. And now I was looking over a river at this country, waving to people in the villages on the opposite banks, and once – riding away from a guy who decided to fire stones at us with impressive accuracy from his slingshot.  On our side the road was poor, but passable and with an occasional flow of trucks and share taxi jeeps using it. On the Afghan side it was no more than a track carved into the steep sides of the river bank and used only by donkeys, motorbikes and a couple of aid vehicles. It definitely felt like the outside looking in.

A little further on we were introduced to the Pamir proper by a guy we nicknamed Papa-Pamiri. He insisted we stay with him for the night and was one of the best vodka-fueled welcomes to a place you could ever hope for!

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On the way down it was cold and raining. The road was showing its weaknesses and Afghanistan was now on the other side of the river we were following.
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The track running along the Afghan side of the Panc river.
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Welcome stop to dry off and eat some of the staples; lachman and plov with a big pot of chai.
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The thick grey river Panç rolled past us everyday on the right and the snow-capped mountains started coming into view.
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We were invited to sleep in the garden and come in for some food. Bread and milky tea was followed by 4 bottles of Vodka! “You are now in the land of the Pamirs and this is Pamiri hospitality” We nick-named our host ‘Papa-Pamiri’ and his daughter and friend spoilt us with vodka, music, dancing and subsequent hangovers!
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Papa-Pamiri hitched a lift to the village shop in the morning to get more vodka but we had to say our groggy goodbyes and struggle back onto the road. Not without a big pamiri-vodka hug for each of us first though.
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Papa-Pamiri – Legend 🙂
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The sun disappearing behind the Afghan mountains.
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The mountains thinning out as we approach the town of Khorug, the capital of the Badachson autonomous region.

About 10 days after leaving Dushanbe we arrived in Khorug, the main town in the region. We stayed for a few days to try and make some repairs, have a little rest, acclimatize a little to the altitude and to stock up on supplies for the next part of the road. Here I discovered that Carra was really starting to feel the strain and had broken a spoke on the rear wheel. I had no tool to remove the cassette and replace the spoke, and after a frustrating visit to the local bazaar (where a drunk guy got every tool he could find from his mechanic friend before attempting to take my wheel apart with a hammer and pliers), it became clear I could not fix it. So I would just have to ride my luck and hope that Carra was up for the challenge.

As we headed out of town we encountered one of the many military checkpoints, at this one we were hassled by an officer who wanted to fine us for not wearing our helmets. When it became clear  we were happy to sit around all day refusing to pay his bribe, one of his colleagues irritably waved us on. The scenery was still breathtaking.  We had now left the Afghan border along the Panc river and were following the electric blue waters of the Gunt river. As we climbed it got colder at night but the sun still shone warmly in the day. The sky was impressively blue and the scenery wasn’t the only breath taking thing – the altitude was starting to make an impact. Luckily, just before the first pass over 4000m, there is the natural spring village of Jelondy. For a few $ we were able to stay in the sanatorium and relax in the natural thermal spring, making for a very lazy day acclimatizing to the altitude a little.

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The accumulative kms and the terrain start to take their toll on Carra and I discover she has a broken spoke in Khorug.

 

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Restocked and rested after a few days in Khorug we headback onto the Pamir Highway. Past a roadside barber whose hut is the same colour as the water in the Gunt river that we follow up to the plateau.
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Stopping for some lunch on a grassy spot by the road we are invited in to a nearby house. It is typical Pamiri style and we were again given more tea, homemade bread and apples than we could consume or carry.
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It was getting cold at night but the days were still perfect temperature for afternoon snoozing. 

However, the next day we made the ascent to the pass onto the plateau, Koj-Tezekit pass reaches 4272m. The last 5km were a bit of an ordeal. The road broke down to winding gravel, the oxygen felt like it disappeared and we all struggled, physically and emotionally. It was just plain hard work, I was incredibly grateful to be suffering this with other people. There was no sense of achievement at the top either as it is unmarked and just opens out onto an endless expanse and a road disappearing over the horizon. I knew it was an incredible place, but my body and especially my thumping headache, were wishing it was somewhere else, probably somewhere lower! But we maintained our (very recently established) tradition of a vodka coffee at each pass soon after. And we all had a smile on our face as Julien’s friend (who had been staying in the same hostel as us in Khorug) chose exactly that point to come past us in a jeep he had hitched a lift in, and shared a swig with us!

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As we left the river to climb up to the plateau the vegetation disappeared, the snow capped peaks re-emerged but the sun kept beaming.
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After a day acclimatizing to the altitude at the hot springs of Jelondy we headed for our first 4000m+ pass. Julien and I prepared with a few road side stretches.
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The barren vastness of the plateau becomes apparent. A desolate kind of beauty.
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Catching my breath somewhere around 4000m, the first few days up o the plateau I had a banging headache and my feet never made friends with the cold at night.

Our first night on the plateau could have been in a hotel – but you’ll understand why it wasn’t from the photo. It was cold in the tents, the water in the river froze, but the silence, the stars and the huge nothingness was incredible. The feeling in the morning when the sun finally rose above the hill and hit you with a burst of warmth was very special. My headache was still there, my feet were still frozen and I was breathing heavily just packing my bags up, but this time I didn’t want to be anywhere else. All the people who I had met who had told me the Pamirs were special and I would only understand when I went there – I was beginning to understand them.

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You could be mistaken for thinking it was the first lunar hotel. But it looked neither open nor tempting so we camped in some crumbling building walls on the other side of the road next to a frozen stream.
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Each morning, when we had finally got warm enough and got our shit together, we lined up on the road to start the days stage. Xav would announce ‘Etap numero ….’ sound his booming air horn and we would begin our days ride, wobbling away from the imaginary line in a fit of giggles!!
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Carra having a rest on her stick stand and trying to be a chameleon and blend in with the warm reds of the hills.
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