Cycling the Pamir Highway AKA the M41 in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is known as cycling the “Roof of the world” with good reason – it’s the second highest highway in the world. It’s not the very highest road to cycle that title belongs to the Karakorum Highway which winds through China and Pakistan, nor does the Pamir Highway go over the very highest passes, however as it passes from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Kabul in Afghanistan it sustains a height of at least 4000m for a pretty long stretch while crossing 4660m passes and piercing straight through some bleak but beautiful high altitude desert landscapes.
We only had a few weeks to ride and explore the Pamir Highway and gaze upon four of the planets most extraordinary mountain ranges: The Altay, Pamir, Wahkan and Hindu Kush. We planned to bike pack the Pamir Highway for what I consider its most dramatic length: Osh to Korogh, but via the Wahkan valley and then complete the loop back on the M41 to Osh. It is a route well suited to lightweight bike packing rather than full on five pannier touring due to rough bumpy roads that can be hard work and way less fun with too much baggage.The perfect bike for the trip
My kit for the trip
The Pamir Highway was built to transport Russian troops to a final frontier outpost of the Soviet empire in the late 1800s. They wanted to protect these furthest reaches, ironically against the British who were stemming north from present day Pakistan. The road was properly paved and totally finished in 1933 which was no mean achievement back then. The ‘smooth’ tarmac was revolutionary and effectively created towns like Mugharb as supply points in the desert where Kyrgyz nomads settled in houses for the first time. It also kept the British at bay. They negotiated the Wakhan to be a buffer zone between empires and to prevent accidental conflict. As the Soviet influence grew so did the population and supplies. Statues to Lenin are still standing as the USSR did a lot of good for some Tajiks in the remote mountainous GBAO region.
In the passing years maintenance has been sporadic at best along the highway, but the road now handles so little traffic why should it be well maintained. There are as many cyclists as vehicles some days.
We weren’t really set on an exact route as we set off. Some seriously hot weather in July had led to high glacier melt levels, which in turn caused mudslides and swollen rivers. The result was washed out roads and bridges, a mud flow had cut off the main M41 highway near Khorough causing a natural dam to flood the local area so we might not even get through.
Setting out cycling the Pamir Highway was a intimidating experience: other than a lot of other cyclists, blue skies and little oxygen we didn’t know what lay ahead!
Here’s some advice that would have helped us out:
1. Eating and Water
The supply of food surprised us, it was much easier to find good fresh food. I think riding in September certainly helped as this is prime vegetable season. The shop in Sary Tash is by the pink ‘Hotel’ building. It is often locked but ask around and it will open if ask nicely. It had good stocks of fresh veg, noodles, soup, vodka etc
There are actually several shops in Karakul village. However none have signs nor seem particularly keen to sell to tourists, they appeared to us, to want to keep eggs and vegetables for locals, but did sell us both. We needed a local kid to guide us into the back room of a house and then a shed in some ones garden, both well stocked with sweets and dry goods. All homestays sell bread if you ask at the right time!
Murghab has a great bazaar for food, the shops are awful and very expensive. Next up Alichur village has a couple of very limited shops, but several homestays with basic food served.
The Wakhan has a few shops but most are well hidden some are in wrecked buses. In Langar village for example the shop was OK but a nightmare to find. It was also locked up until our host asked for them to open. By staying in homestays food is much easier but you play the hygiene roulette game!
If camping and cooking beware certain multifuel stoves seemed to fail at the highest altitude. Our MSR Dragonfly was fine, others had Primus’s that wouldn’t light due to altitude, however it might be fuel quality as well. Also be aware that to treat or cook with water you need to boil it for ages, for example rice takes 30 minutes plus to cook.
Water was also easier to find than expected. You really do need a filter as well as treatment tablets. Our filters struggled with the silt in streams, especially after rain when the silt is worst. A lot of water can probably be drunk straight from source but that’s your call!
The stretch from Alichur to Langar in Wakhan is worst for finding water, the lakes are mostly salty here so take lots from Alichur. Be-aware that above 4000m the streams are likely to be dry from being frozen overnight in September onwards, they flowed again from midday for us.
We tended to wild camp or stay in homestays. Wild camping is easy up here, but can be a challenge when the ground is rocky or sandy especially if your tent is not good at anchoring in the wind. We camped in a beautiful spot by lake Karakul with the most amazing views and we recommend trying to camp a few times as the starry skies will bring a tear to your eye. Just be aware of the winds which can strengthen in no time and also change direction quite quickly on the plateau.
Homestays are clearly marked on the Swiss Gecko GBAO map and were accurate. They are an easy and good way to meet cyclists and interesting hosts, so we used them more than we expected.
As an aside point I was embarrassed and annoyed by some travelers and cyclists that we met who aggressively haggled in home-stays, it’s pretty bad form to haggle over a dollar or two. Especially with people who benefit hugely from that extra dollar most of us westerners wouldn’t miss much. If the price is too high for you then camp, or go elsewhere. Maybe ask politely but it isn’t in Tajik or Kygyzs culture to overcharge and haggle, they generally charge what is fair to them. We found about $10 to $12 was common, occasionally we paid $5 and $15 each per night including dinner and breakfast.
3. Road Conditions
The road was perfect tarmac from Osh to Sary Tash. Then to the border it was mostly smooth. The stretch to the Tajik border post in no-mans land was mud and gravel for 20km. In the dry it was fine, but after rain it would be an awful sticky mess.
From the Tajik border crosing it was corrogated gravel, before smoother but massively undulating tarmac. The next gravel part was rough road up to the 4600m pass after Karakul but before Mugharb. The road in and out of Mugharb was very good.
The next bad section was from the turn off to Wakhan past Alichur for about 200km. It varied from gravel to sand, expect to push sections. While OK going downhill for us, going uphill in the opposite direction would meaning 20km of pushing up – put simply it would be miserable. The Wakhan valley road was slow going but never really a big issue, it improved around Shitkharv and was generally OK to Khorogh. We had 37mm Continental Contact trekking tyres and were fine, there’s no need for MTB tyres or wider trekking tyres, neither would help in the sand, but both would slow you down a lot on everything else.
From Khorogh to Murgharb the July/August 2015 washout from flooding was open but a rough road around the new lake, read the blog for more info. The next section up the first 4000m+ pass was very rough, much worse than we expected. While not sandy and walking, it is rough and slow going until you get close to Alichur again.
There was dangerously strong UV rays from the warm sun during the day. Factor 45 is recommended even if you don’t burn easily. In Osh the dust hides the sun a bit but it’s still strong and hot. At altitude it is much stronger UV but cooler.
It does rain more than I had anticipated along much of the route. Don’t get me wrong it is still desert but the odd shower still fell once a week. The further East meant the less chance of rain. Mugharb to the Wakhan was seriously dry, like Sahara dry.
It was August/September but on the high Pamir it snowed during the day once and fell below freezing every night. As soon as the sun goes you need a down jacket and a good sleeping bag. Beware your water supply might be frozen by breakfast.
5. Safety and border crossings
I have never had an issue after four border crossings in Kyrgyzstan. I think you’d be unlucky to get hassle here. The Tajik border felt a bit different. We paid a small disinfectant fee, that probably went towards Vodka. Then at the final customs booth the three rough looking guards had taken an interest in some French men with a car, they saw more chance of cash with them so we got through without hassle. Try to cross early as drinking is a problem up here we were told. However in our experience there’s nothing to worry about, on the return we didn’t have any hassle either. I suspect you have to be pretty unlucky to get hassled beyond a few dollars when on a push bike.
Safety in general was always in our minds when in an area the Foreign office advise against all but essential travel. The truth is it’s pretty safe, the locals are warm and welcoming. The homestays all felt safe and never did we feel nervous about anything getting stolen, it was just common sense to avoid flashing IPhones or cash about the poorer you look the less hassle you’ll get. For this reason I wore old hiking kit rather than smart biking apparel. The biggest risk from theft out here are other travelers running out of money and looking to ‘fund’ their travels, from what we heard.
The Wakhan and along the Afghan border was totally fine however there was a greater military presence than we expected. THe check point at the head of the valley had three armed guards and an old tank. Then near Ishkishim we passed maybe 30-40 soldiers patrolling over 2 days. I think the area on the Afghan side is worse than it has been, but there’s no noticeable threat.
Isolation poses the biggest threat, you can wait hours for a car, that might then not even have space for you or your bike. You need to be self sufficient for a few days in sections. Take spares and know how to use them, it’s not an area to have a bike failure. Saying that cars do come past you will get help, it just might take longer than many parts of the world.
Hygiene is poor out here, 9/10 people will get quite sick riding through here at some point. We got quite lucky – Marion wasn’t too sick and I survived OK, maybe due to visiting and getting ill here last year. Homestays are the obvious risk but people we met solely camping and cooking their own food still got ill it seemed. Take with you medication and antibiotics just in case.
Altitude sickness is pretty real over 4000m and you’re a long way from help. The road climbs steeply out of Osh so take a day longer than you need. We were OK but had a day to acclimatize in Sary Tash. Riding at altitude seemed to make little difference while riding but we both got far more exhausted and drained by the end of a day than we would normally.
Water needs treating in most places due the the number of grazing livestock. Water can boil at low temperatures so it can be hard to kill bugs, I put my hand in boiling water that’s how cool it boils up here. I think this catches people out a lot when treating water.
Travel insurance can be a nightmare for the Pamirs, the FCO advice is against all but essential travel to the region. THis is the same for the USA. This means 99% of all travel insurance is totally invalid for any trip here. We joined the BMC and used their insurance as we couldn’t find any alternative.
7. Phones, Internet, Cash and ATMs
Cell phone coverage is pretty good across the area. A lot has been spent updating the mobile phone masts in recent years. In fact a few areas have 4G coverage apparently. I didn’t buy a Tajikistan data sim card for my smart phone but I wish I did. There’s simply no traditional infrastructure, no internet phone lines nor reliable electricity in most villages, but solar powered masts do exist. Osh and Khorogh are the only line based internet spots in the entire region and the latter is patchy.
Take a lot of cash in US dollars. There’s ATM’s in Osh but nowhere else except Khorogh but these are not the most reliable and can be empty for days. Money can be changed in Mugharb at the hotel where they give a good rate, less homestays than might think exchange dollars and even then the rate will be awful. Also swap with other cycliss and you’ll get an even better rate as they need to get rid of Som.
The route is absolutely mind blowing in everyway, there’s a reason so many cyclists ride it each summer (or winter). It’s probably not suitable for your first ever cycle tour as you can be totally stuffed if something goes wrong out there. However for anyone experienced in adventure travel or cycling then don’t wait – ride it ASAP before it changes or politics prevent it being so easy as it is now.