As we left Lake Karakul in Tajikistan we learnt Panada’s struggle at altitude.
I’ll admit it was a shock to see that a Fiat had suffered a major mechanical but much like my nose, the car was bleeding badly from the altitude. It was at quite possibly the worst location too because either direction required a long tow over seriously high rough gravel passes. I thought to myself; it might be hard work on a bike up here, but it’s still easier to get the heck out if it all goes wrong. We passed only a handful of cars most days on the Pamir Highway, however after leaving Karakul we passed some traffic from the Tajik and the Mongol rally, including a German fire engine and the Panda above. It’s a nice idea that they drive here then donate the vehicle at their destination.
Lake Karakul was still beautiful after 35km of cycling around it, but even that was not enough to deter the pain of a full on headwind along a road that had less corners than the Romans would’ve managed.
It quickly became apparent that the master plan of me using the Apidura bike packing bags loaded with heavy stuff and Marion panniers with light bulky stuff had back fired. Weight was not the issue, instead drag in the strong winds was crucial. Panniers act like sails, Apidura bags are way more streamlined which is an even bigger advantage than there low weight. I quickly reached for the multi tool and tried to swap the rack over onto my bike, but disaster struck, a bolt rounded. There was nothing I could do to help Marion, how very convenient you might say….
We kept struggling into the wind, making slow progress fueled by stale chewy fruit sweets. We stopped for lunch by two other Dutch cyclists who were utilizing a clear fresh mountain stream for water. We had some delicious super noodles of an unknown flavour, the water quickly boiled despite the MSR stove struggling with the low oxygen and strong winds up here. With the altitude water boils at a lot lower temperatures, in fact you can put your finger in I discovered as part of a brave experiment. The ‘food’ was enough to spur on our attempt to clear the impending 4600m pass that was hovering metaphorically on the horizon. Soon after leaving the Dutch cyclists, the road turned to a rough washboard gravel for the next 15 to 20km and the going was tough but the wind had abated. We saw a couple of yurts but little else in this vast high altitude desert environment. A few marmots whistled abruptly as a warning of our approach, a yak with his foot tied to his horn waved an awkward wave but little else was going on.
We saw a touring bike outside a yurt and we were called over by the hosts but decided to keep heading up the pass. We later found out the cyclist was Lucas a friendly German guy. The Dutch pair we had lunch with had decided to stay in the yurt he told us, but sadly they got very sick from the place. We were glad to be camping that night.
The first part of the climb was brutally steep as it veered away from the wide open valley, it was one of those roads where you stop, stare and think, seriously is that the road or just a 4×4 track? At the head of the valley the view took you right up towards some vast tumbling glaciers and snowy peaks, herds of yak and dotted yurts completed a remarkably perfect view.
We ate fake Russian snickers bars while sat beside a post that said 4655m, a sign of what lay in store. An air of silent contemplation arose from the forthcoming pain from lugging our bikes up a huge hill with just 30% of sea level oxygen. Marion wondered why we hadn’t gone to Italy to eat ice cream. Still it could be worse we could be stuck at a desk, I said.
As is often the case the road was not as steep as it looked and we made decent progress. The views got better, a flat section at 4450m was highlighted by the late afternoon sunlight which in turn was illuminating a rainbow of earthy colours, set against the darkest-deepest blue sky that only high altitude can create.
Finally the inevitable hairpins appeared, and the lack of oxygen after a long day battling headwinds saw Marion off and pushing just to control her breathing. I was OK but we probably lacked a degree of acclimatisation for this next level of height.
We finally crested the summit as the shadows lengthened and we didn’t hang about before getting on the descent. We knew there was an old house with water 2km down and we did indeed see a basic collection of buildings but chose to ride on, aiming for the first spring fed stream about 15km further towards Mugharb. The wind was calm and the descent endless, we hardly pedalled for what must have been 10km.
Just as the evening gloom was getting to be a concern we saw some grassy patches by our spring fed stream that we had noted on the map. We stopped and camped. Our tent was about 20m from the Chinese border fence, the GPS said we should be 20km, another indication of the Chinese land grab that was constantly alongside us. The Marmots were all on the Chinese side, I guess they like the food more.
The next day we rolled through more vast open plateau and gawped at the mountains but also discovered some historic relics of the people who have passed before us. We saw ancient burial grounds, mud walls enclosing tombs with random bunches of broom like sticks hanging eerily in the wind. We also saw an old Caravanserai with cosy domed rooms providing rest to the ancient silk road caravans who have passed this way for centuries. It was long since abandoned but the date of 1890 on the wall showed it had at least been upgraded in last 125 years.
We passed an abandoned village, with just a few stationary donkeys and some old folk lingering. This village called Chetceky was not far before the Rangkul turn where two huge salt lakes and views of China lay in store. Here was the first signpost for 200km, ironically pointing to the abandoned village:
After another few KMs we excitedly saw a substantial town appear ahead – Mugharb, the first proper town since Osh almost a week before. We were excited about fresh food, a bed and maybe even an internet connection. We may have been optimistic!
Mugharb, a place that was first settled by Russian troops back in the 1800s as the final frontier military outpost against the British who were in Pakistan or what was India. This was the heart of the so called ‘Great Game’ between the Soviet and British empires. The area was previously just home to Krygyzs nomads whose herds grazed the high pastures. Overtime they settled in Mugharb to service the new soviet military garrison, whether through road building or selling provisions. A legacy of the Russians and the history of the place is Pamisky Outpost the ruined barracks out of town surrounded by what looks like brown rocks but instead were rusty tin cans A legacy of canned rations that were all the soldiers had to survive the harsh high altitude winters up here.
Today Murghab is bigger but still quite a desolate place in the desert, wind swept fences of rusty metal made from old car doors help frame the Chinese trucks that rumble past. Tourists bring in cash to the handful of community Guest Houses and there is even a hotel, but is firmly inaccessible limited to the few seasoned travellers. When we arrived there was no power supply to the town, instead relying on generators, internet was non existent.
The Bazaar (market) was formed of old shipping containers but was surprisingly well stocked, they had pretty much all you needed, we bought watermelon, puffed corn snacks(a big bag was 5p!) and some pasta with fresh veg – bliss.
We stayed at the Erali Homestay, located at the top of a hill and it had the most amazing views over the mud brick houses of Mugharb. The main hotel seemed like a place to avoid, but they did change USD for us.
We stayed an afternoon before heading south. We had learnt that the recent flood damage to the Pamir Highway was repaired so our intended loop was back on. We would head to the Wakhan Corridor before following the Panj river to Khoroug, if time allowed us.
Next stop were the plains of Alichur: high altitude pasture with a few scenic lakes. We pedalled out of Mugharb and stopped at the first check point of the trip. Passports were demanded and taken into a small hut. The guy outside seemed intent on flashing his gun about but was not unfriendly. On my own I probably would have asked for a picture with the golden toothed soldier but Marion was not super keen on the idea!
Finally the registration was completed and we could cycle on. The scenery carried on much the same as the previous day as we made progress from 3600m to a 4300m pass. I struggled with a nose bleed again, and we got overtaken by 4 very slow and courteous Chinese trucks. Beyond that we just soaked up the alien world that still surrounded us.
Finally we crested the pass just in time to meet a ridiculously over loaded Swiss cycle tourer who was clearly suffering, the sight of our fresh faces and limited stuff seemed not to help his mood. I have complete winter kit he said in defence of his set up, we agreed we had too, he said he had been on the road from Switzerland, I said I had used the same kit from the UK last year. I suspect we might see a few more Apidura style bags in use next time we cycle the Pamir highway!
The plains of Alichur were dramatic, anywhere with this many yaks is going to be exciting to cycle through. We also saw a few locals on motorbikes with sidecars, they were ex-Soviet models (the bikes not the riders) and the riders seemed to be using the tall Kyrgyzstan hats as protection. It was quite a random sight, one that we didn’t see anywhere else just near Alichur!
That night we stayed in a yurt homestay heated by a yak dung fire. The host family were super friendly, the kids insisted on helping Marion unpack her bike:
It took a while to work out what was in the kids hand. Then I realised it was part of a goats lower jaw bone with bloody flesh and teeth still attached. I guess Marions bike and bags might now need a wash…. talking of washing a mountain stream ran past the yurt with crystal clear cold water.
I washed my hands and met the father of the house coming the other way, I couldn’t work out what he was up to, I then realised he had a tray of skinned goats heads that he was washing in the aforementioned stream. Fruity. Talking of fruity, the yurt had a certain smell that I couldn’t place, I realised it was probably the white animal fat hanging to dry on one side. This is the life that they have to live up here, animals are the staple diet with little else able to grow, therefore nothing is wasted.
Dinner was goat head free soup, Marion being vegetarian was pleased.
We settled in for a cosy night in our yurt after experiencing a pretty genuine insight into the family’s daily life. Here are our comfy beds for the night:
From Alichur we left early, but only after we had picked up some biscuits from the shop that sold: Oil, Snickers, biscuits and cola drink powder and you think Lidl has a limited selection?
The Pamir Highway road passed two bright blue lakes before we reached the fabled turn off to the Wakhan valley and Afghanistan. This route was notoriously rough going but one of the most fascinating hidden corners of the entire planet, we were excited but a little nervous about what lay in store. The road turn actually had a no entry sign loosely hanging in the wind, we wondered if it was fate that we shouldn’t go this way. But we did and first we had to cycle past multi coloured warm springs, a salty lake and some more arid mountains to the final 4300m pass.
It was easy going on gravel and rock strewen road that was always solid enough. A few patches of sand appeared but it was easier than anticipated. However it was a lonely area, little water, just a trickling stream and we saw just a couple of herders over the entire stretch.
As we started the descent from the pass we saw the Wakhan mountains for the first time, this was Afghanistan and it looked wild, empty but inviting.
We quickly lost height heading directly towards the snowy horizon. As the road flattened we approached two ‘farms’ and then the military checkpoint at Khargash.
The check point base had a tank on display and two armed soldiers standing in a sandbag reinforced hut, while the road had an anti tank bollard chicane – not a place for taking photos I thought. A third soldier was charging up towards us his machine gun flapping around in the process. It turned out he was the literate one that wrote our passport details in the book. The others wanted cigarettes or headphones, but we had neither. I guess you could feel safe because the area was being protected by soldiers, but at the same time it woke us up to the fact we had just arrived on a bike only 30m from Afghanistan and we had to camp along here somewhere tonight…..