Up on the roof of the world

I could not have asked for a better trio to share my Pamir experience with, we laughed a lot, got into some very detailed conversations about our toilet habits  and could solve most of our problems with a bakal of vodka or the advice to remember to ‘respire et boire’ (breathe and drink (water)). I also have to thank Camille for sharing her beautiful photos, some of which I have used in these posts. The Pamirs are a tough place to ride a bike through but they are no easier to live in. It is a predominantly cold and dry area where not much grows and the sparse population are very poor. The main source of employment used to come from the Russian military and a few coal mines but after they left, the area has struggled economically. To add to the regions problems the  Gorno-Badakhshan province fought against the government in the civil war between 1992-97 and as payback the victorious government has offered little support to the area. As a result there is little choice of food and the few shops are a sorry sight of out of date tinned and dried goods. Any cyclist you meet who has been along the Pamir Highway will bemoan the packet-noodle-diet and remember the wonder of tins of condensed milk (available almost everywhere and packed full of sweet syrupy calories).

Not content with the barren beauty of the ‘main’ road we took a detour along a dirt track through desert-esque terrain to lake Jasif-kul. The colours on the mountains were even more incredible when reflected in the dead-still water and we again camped under incredible stellar displays. It was the closest I have ever been to the stars (outside of an airplane) and the sky was so clear I felt like I could be wrap myself up in them. One night we were on a small plateau above a river bed with a single yak herders’ yurt . After we moved on along the river we did not see another sign of human life, other than the track we were following, for 48hrs. There was a full moon that stayed out most of the day and we joked we had swapped places – we were riding on the moon and seeing Earth in the sky.

On several occasions we would round a corner of the road and just stop in awe of the landscape. We often didn’t have anything to say to each other at these pauses, a shared exhalation of amazement was enough.
I took a side track and ended up in a world of my own. This was really how small (I am the little blob between the poles)  I frequently felt in this vast landscape, a dot on the dry plateau surface, a million miles from the rest of the world.
The colours in the hills were like beautiful sand art and perfectly reflected in the motionless lake near Bulunkul.
Camille heading off to find our lakeside pic-nic spot for lunch.
The view over to lake Jasif-Kul in the morning.
Another wild camping paradise during 48hrs when we did not see another human being or habitation.
Julien and I having a ‘stand and stare’ moment as we wonder if we are actually on the moon. The pictures can not convey the beauty of the colours and patterns of these mountains.

Back on the main road we called in at the tiny town of Alicur. We were hoping to find some fresh trout that is fished from the river here and very popular with the principal road users – Chinese truck drivers. We thought we were out of luck as we were told the season had finished, but a little further down the road a woman was miraculously selling fresh fish. As it turned out, we weren’t going to eat fish that night. As we were looking for a place to camp as the light and temperature started to drop we spotted a trio of yak herders’ yurts by a stream.  The inhabitants watched us curiously as we approached and welcomed us when we asked if we could camp by the stream. As we made our introductions we were of course invited into one of the yurts for chai.

Chai soon turned into dinner. A variety of yak milk products was laid out in front us: Yak milk, yak cream, yak clotted cream, yak milk tea, stale home-made bread and yak butter (we were warned not to eat too much of this as it gives you a headache). Outside the temperature was sinking below zero but inside the yurt we were glowing with warmth and spent a beautiful evening talking with the family living there (thanks to Julien’s accomplished Russian – he didn’t have the nick-name ‘le Kazak’ just for his vodka love!). They told us we could sleep inside with them but we did not want to impose and eventually scurried into our tents, trying to transfer the warmth with us into our sleeping bags.

All night it sounded like the herd of yaks sleeping nearby were about to wander right into my tent, their gentle grunts and snorts in the cold night sounded inches away from my head. In the frosty morning each yak was milked before their calves could have their breakfast and then the herd wandered off to graze. We were again invited in for breakfast (exactly the same as dinner). We were once again humbled by this spontaneous hospitality, all we could offer in return were cigarettes (which the father gratefully scurried outside to smoke with the guys) and photos. Before we left we asked for an address for the village they live in during the winter (the yurts are summer homes out on the grazing land, it’s just too cold in the winter) and I later sent some of the photos we had taken together with the family.

The sun was pretty intense at this altitude but I should probably have told Xav that this was kids factor 50 and had a colour in it so parents can see where it has been applied. With nowhere to wash for a fair distance he sported this joker mask (or the cracked remnants of it) for a few days!
Tourism is catching on in Alicur, slowly. The village had a deserted wild west feel to it. We were looking forward to some rare fresh fish but it turned out the season was over. In the small cafe that serves the passing Chinese truck drivers it was the usual choice; lachmun (meat and noodles with whatever tinned veg was around), corba (meat and potato broth) or manti (meat in a pasta-like parcel).
Sunset in the Pamirs and the temperature plunges with it.
Our neighbours and hosts for the night were a herd of grunting yaks and their calves, who were tended to by the three families still living in their summer yurt residences.
One family invited us into their yurt for the evening and we glowed in the warmth.
The yaks being milked in the morning.


We were invited in again for breakfast and the wife wanted to take a photo of us with Camille’s camera. She managed to capture the moment we were all explaining to hold the button down!
Living in the middle of nowhere this tiny yurt community still shared there food and homes with us. Hospitality and the warmest of smiles – it was very special.
Back on the Pamir Highway with more breath taking scenery.

Back out on the road through the wilderness we passed another unmarked pass, named on the map as Nazatos Pass, 4314m, where we celebrated with a little more than our usual vodka coffee. We cooked ‘Pamir Fish & Chips’ (the fish had kept perfectly over night in natures freezer), finishing a bottle of vodka as we cooked and sobering up with a strong coffee after. It must have been a surreal sight for a tourist jeep that stopped by to say hello to us. 4 drunk cyclists in the middle of nowhere eating fish and sauteed potatoes by the side of the road in the middle of the afternoon. It was like a whole weekend in 2 hours – we got drunk, ate some food, fell asleep (for about 15mins), had a coffee and got back on the bikes. I’m guessing it was the altitude!

A few more days ride brought us to the town of Murgab. It is so remote that there is only electricity in one half of the town at any one time. They share it on alternative days and rely on generators the others. The bazaar is a series of shipping containers and all the water is pumped by hand from wells donated by and dug with Japanese aid. One thing is never in short supply in these ex-soviet states and that is alcohol. On arrival in town we headed straight for the ramshackle row of little restaurants that run parallel to the bazaar. A small plate of fried potatoes and yak meat was happily washed down with beer and more vodka. Altitude once again seemed to have the effect of speeding the whole process and we were happily tipsy by the end of dinner and sober before we went to bed!


The official road sign for the Pamir Highway – also known as the M41 and colloquially as the Opium Highway (it’s one of the main routes for transporting heroin from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe).
Murgab, an outpost town at 3600m. 100km from the Chinese border and 200km from the Kyrgyzstan border.
Murgab bazaar is a line of shipping containers selling mostly out of date dried food and whatever arrives with the Chinese truck drivers.
Kyrgyz men (you can tell by their traditional hats) hanging out at the bazaar.

You only have to travel about 1km out of Murgab before you are back in the barren emptiness. The hours spent riding through this vast wilderness will remain ingrained in my mind for a long time. The sense of space – to ride, to breathe, to think, to remember, to smile and to wonder. Sometimes I would listen to my music to encourage my legs and lungs on and I definitely had a few ‘moments’. Incredibly difficult to explain but I guess you will know what I mean . . . . or not!

For a few days we rode near a fence the Chinese had built to protect their border and we took the opportunity to step onto ‘Chinese soil’  visa-free when the gaps allowed. Time was unfortunately running out on my Tajikistan visa so Julien and I had to say our good-byes to Camille and Xav and push on to the border. However, there was one major challenge waiting for us – the highest pass on the road. We had been looking at the Akbajtal pass on the map for a long time, at 4655m it stood out as soon as you looked at the Pamir highway. I expected it to be tough, it didn’t disappoint.

The sign marking it is a couple of kms from the true pass – maybe so you can look ‘happy’ and ‘alive’ when you take your photo in front of it. I think it took about 2 hours to reach the true pass. 2 hours of gasping the thin air, winding  and wobbling in granny gear against the incline, straining to keep slow momentum and enough traction on the gravel and dust. I made it all the way to the last corner on Carra until a cheeky little extra gradient forced me off. I remember standing on that corner looking at Julien struggle to the top, I felt like I was using all my strength just to hold Carra up and stop us both rolling backwards. I am sure I was pushing on the handlebars to walk forward but we just didn’t move. Julien had caught his breath and was about to come down to help me when finally I found enough effort to push – he looked at me and knew not to take another step. I was back in stubborn walking mode and  was going to get there by my own steam. We shared big hug on arrival, well earned vodka coffee and photos and bars of chocolate from some Norwegian tourists in a share jeep.

That’s my serious face, probably after a beautiful headphones moment where some music and the landscape match up perfectly and I cycled along in a world of my own. More than once I found myself wondering what I had done in this lifetime to have earned the privilege to be in this place. Or it could all have been the lack of oxygen.
Despite the official border line being 20km away over a mountain, the Chinese have built this fence along a large section of the road after Murgab. There were plenty of holes in it for us to sneak into China for a few minutes though!
We had known this was coming, but it was still an absolute killer. The actual pass is too high for the sign – they put one about 2km either side.
The highest ‘bakal’ – vodka coffee at the true Akbajtal pass, 4655m. The hardest earned and maybe one of the sweetest tasting. (The sprite bottle always had the vodka in 🙂

After the initial descent from the pass we were back on open plains and undulating tracks between the surrounding hills and mountains. The next few days took us along some horrible washboard gravel roads that rattled our ailing bikes and tired bones to shreds. We passed the stunning lake Karakul, taking a short day to lie in the afternoon sun overlooking it and watch a beautiful sunset. The Chinese fence re-appeared and we neared the Tajikistan border. Neither of us wanted to leave but the date on our visas gave us little choice. The check point stands at the final 4000m+ pass on the Pamir highway and the climb to Kyzyl-Art pass, 4280m, was a tough way to leave. During our lunch break we had sheltered from the wind behind a concrete storm water tunnel. In the warm sun we had dozed off and when we woke a sandstorm had kicked up and we were covered in sand. This continued to blow with incredible force into our faces as we climbed the last few kms. To make it worse there was the return of the washboard gravel and we were struggling to plod along at 5km/h. At one point, as if by way of apology from mother nature, an eagle swooped just above our heads and hung in the wind just beside the road. Then it was gone and we were fighting the headwind again.

Sometimes the road was hard work (washboard gravel is not much fun) but it wasn’t like we had to fight for a space on it.
The shores of lake Karakul at 3914 m.
By now Julien and I were on our own as we had to push on to the border before our visas expired. Neither of our bikes were designed for this kind of ride but both were hanging in there with the help of some innovative repairs and a lot of cable ties!
‘Hammertime’ at a former check point into the village of Karakul.
With the last of our Tajik Som we bought the only dried biscuits and out of date capri sun that we could find in the shop and found a view over the lake for our last afternoon in Tajikistan.
The mountains of the Chinese border and a french (kazak!) man on his horse!
For the climb up to the border we had to battle against a headwind full of sand – hence the look!

At the border check point, nothing more than a few port-a-cabins and a unit of soldiers, we went through the 3 or 4 different checks. One of these involved asking if we were smuggling any heroin along the Opium Highway by the international sign language of pointing to our bags and then making an injection gesture on an arm. We responded with the appropriate international sign language response – blank face and head shaking. There is around 25km of no-mans-land between the Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan borders (which may explain why so many drugs are transported across these area) and it felt like a transition for nature as much as nationalities. After chatting to a Portugese couple we met cycling the other way just round the corner from the border, we started to descend. Where there had only been arid, dusty land in Tajikistan, here there were mosses and patches of snow. The light started to fade and we bounced our way down the steep descent to the valley below. Just as the light was disappearing the road flattened out and we found a place to camp by the riverbed.

The view over the other side of Kyzyl-Art pass, 4280m and the end of the road in Tajikistan.
We slept in no-mans-land at the first point where it flattened out after the pass. This was our view along the valley when we opened the tent to the warming sunshine in the morning.

My first visit to Tajikistan was firmly in my mind as we set up the tent for a first ever night sleeping in no-mans-land. It was a stunning view to wake up to in the morning and I like the idea that it is not a view that anyone owns. Because surely no-mans-land is any-mans land and that morning it was all ours.

One thought on “Up on the roof of the world

  1. Wow, I’m sure some of those desert mountain images are seared in your mind forever. Drink in every hr. while you are there.

    And stay healthy, strong and contemplative.


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