Much like our other extended city stays, our time in Dushanbe has largely been a mix of watching the olympics on the high-speed wifi and (when I could drag Paddy away) trawling the bazars and shopping centres to replace lost gear.
We also submitted our application for our final visa – Turkmenistan – we just hope we are successful.
We both came down with stomach bugs during our stay in the city but we thankfully found a really nice hostel to recouperate in and enjoyed cooking homemade lesagne and blackberry and apple crumble which – thanks to three lovely Irish lads we met – we washed down with Barry’s tea.
We visited the national museum which is fairly interesting…
We learnt A LOT about the current president Enomali Rhamon who has been in the top job since 1994 (3 years after the country declared independance from the Soviet Union) leading the ever dominant People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan.
There is a whole room dedicated to him in the museum. Here he is holding some large melons…
And again looking presidential while pressing a button…
We took a walk along the gardens admiring the crown topped Building of Nations:
And took a visit to the second largest flag pole in the world (it was the first until a taller one was built in Saudi Arabia).
While walking over the lake I dropped the lens cap into the water so we had to enlist the help of the nice pedalo owner to get it back…
Another day we visited the very beautiful botanical gardens. It happened to be a Sunday and there were about 40 weddings going on all across the park. We enjoyed watching all the couples having extended photo shoots in and around the many wooden pagodas.
This couple held this pose for at least 5 minutes…
Afterwards we treated ourselves to another curry and washed it down with the local beverage – vodka shots.
All the ladies in Central Asia wear the same matching tunic and trouser combo and as I would be needing some looser clothing for Iran I had my own made up for me by this lovely lady in the bazaar. The fabric and the tailoring cost a total of £10!
We’ve decided that tomorrow we will leave for the Uzbekistan border despite not having heard the outcome of our Turkmenistan visa (we’ve already waited 10 days). There is a chance we will be sent a confirmation email for a visa on arrival but we have so little faith in the Turkmen visa system that we’re not holding out much hope.
If we don’t hear then we will be forced to cycle/hitch/train to Aktau in Kazakhstan where we can get a cheap air ticket to Tehran instead.
Khorog was a nice town to hang out in before moving on. There is an excellent Indian restaurant in the middle of town where we ate both nights as well as a number of excellent local cafes.
It felt amazing to eat some different tasting meals as we have largely been living off the same tomato based dish when camping. We were also able to draw cash (although ended up using our debit visa AGAIN after our Caxton MasterCard wouldn’t work in any of the machines….) and spent the best part of our day off lazing in the towns lovely park, swimming in the lido, playing cards and drinking lots of beer.
We were able to stock up on all the essentials at the market which including the normal hunt for porridge oats… We weren’t going to carry as much food with us from now on as there would be many more towns and shops on the forthcoming road.
So we set off out of Khorog the next morning. We had stayed at the Pamir Lodge which is where most other tourists, especially cycle tourers end up. We had an OK stay but in some ways it was a mistake for us to go there mainly because we both caught an ugly stomach bug which didn’t manifest itself until we were back on the road.
We didn’t cover as many kilometres as we wanted the first day only managing 72km before camping outside the town of Rushon.
The bug hit me first (the next morning) and we managed 30km before I admitted defeat and told Paddy I couldn’t go on. We set up camp in a lovely spot along the shores of the river and I spent the majority of the afternoon sleeping, waiting for the Imodium and antibiotics to kick in.
By the evening I was feeling pretty good at which point the same bug hit Paddy who was up half the night being violently sick…
Despite the bad night we managed to set off the next morning and did a good day of cycling.
At 4ish we’re stopped at a checkpoint and got chatting to the friendly army guys manning the post. This friendly chat ended up with us being invited into their office for vodka shots (I say ‘shots’ it was more like large glasses).
By the time we left I was rather tipsy (as was Paddy) and we’re not ashamed to admit that we had a little stop overlooking the river and sang along to Elton John for a while at the top of our lungs. Half way through Paddy’s passionate performance of ‘Don’t let the sun go down on me‘ a guy pulls up in a silver car and despite out cheery waves flashes an official looking government card. Clearly we’re meant to be highly intimidated by this although we have no idea what the card means or who this random person is. Nevertheless we act all meek and he drives off after telling us to move on.
The wind had seriously picked up at this point and we struggled onto the next village where a nice family and their huge turkeys let us camp in their garden.
We want to reach Qal’ai Khumb by the next evening but the road – which had largely been decent asphalt since Khorog – turned back into a stony potholed nightmare.
We stop at a cafe to have an early lunch and met some other cyclists, one of whom has just had a small bag stolen from his bike…
We keep a watchful eye over the bike at lunch.
We continue on for another 22km where we discover our wallet is missing… Not understanding quite how this happened, as I had had it moments before getting on the bike, we discuss whether it’s worth cycling back in case it’s somewhere in the cafe.
Fortunately, it only contained about £5 worth of cash and one bank card (Paddy’s) so we decide it’s not the end of the world – the wallet itself is probably the biggest loss.
Amazingly, we manage to call the card company over Skype via our Tajik SIM card and have it cancelled there and then! The world is an amazing place…
While getting back on the bike I realise that I have also lost my new cotton shirt – scatter brain comes to mind…
After a long day in the saddle – six and a half hours! – we reach the extremely modern town of Qal’ai Khumb where there are modern facilities such as street lamps and late night restaurants! We find a lovely homestay and have our first hot shower in five days. It turns out we weren’t as tanned as we thought – just filthy!
Tomorrow is Monday and we need to get to Dushanbe as quickly as possible to start the Turkmen visa process so we will take a shared taxi from here to the capital.
Day 1: Just past Khargush to the little hamlet of Langar
Distance: 60.2km / Ride Time: 5:18
A long day sees us reach the village of Langar. There’s a fair amount of climing despite us following the river downstream and the road is frustratingly bad in some places.
To make up for the rough road however the views across the valley are pretty spectacular and throughout the whole day we have a great sight of the Hindu Kush mountain range situated just over the border in Afghanistan.
The first part takes us close along the riverbank before a long climb up where we stay for the rest of the afternoon. The wind gets stronger and stronger as the afternoon progresses and we fear that we will have to put up with this pattern for the majority of our cycle through the valley.
Finally we drop down and suddenly find ourselves cycling through a green oasis. The road is lined with charming stone walls and we pass stray goats and donkeys munching their way through green hedgerows.
Traditional white Pamiri houses with their pyramid sky windows cling to the hillside while streams and small canals wind their way down between the buildings feeding the flower beds and fruit trees. Langar is a beautiful place, and compared to the the dry, dusty moonscapes we’ve become accustomed to, it feels like a pastoral paradise!
We find a nice, albeit simple, homestay with a local family who’s house is set along a small river, their garden filled with apricot trees.
The dad takes us to the local shop, a higgledy-piggledy walk up through the stone walls and across little streams.
The whole place feels like we could be in a small Mediterranean village somewhere.
There’s not much in the way of food in the shop but we manage to get some noodles, and more importantly, 2 litres of beer!
Day 2: Langar to Yamg Distance: 38.3km / Ride Time: 3:20
From Langar there are villages almost every 5km or so along the valley each with at least one homestay. We planned a short day as we were in need of a decent rest and were craving a proper bed and hot shower after five nights of washing in a stream.
We headed for the village of Yamg where we had heard there was a little museum dedicated to a 20th century musician, philosopher and astronomer called Mubarak Kadam Wakhani.
Our progress was delayed an hour due to more front rack problems – another sheared bolt. We fear we’re going to need to replace the whole rack soon, there is only so many cable ties and bolts we can go through!
We had a beautiful ride through the small villages which are all surrounded by green fields of tall grass. It’s fairly hazy but we can still make out the Hindu Kush mountains.
Tall poplar trees and a strong head breeze keep the heat at bay and we arrive at the village by 3pm before finding a lovely homestay where we get fed to our hearts content!
We take the next day off and spend the morning visiting the museum which is set in a reconstructed traditional Pamiri home.
Our guide (Mubarak’s great grandson) even plays us some tunes from the musicians own string instruments and explains about the various inventions and philosophies of his great grandfather.
It’s an interesting morning and we both enjoy some time off the bike.
After the museum we cycle just 7km up the road to Yamchun where there are the famous Bibi Fatima hot springs and some impressive 12th century castle ruins. Both the fort and hot spring are situated 11km up a steep track so we leave the tandem in the local roadside shop and organise a lift (in a very old Lada Land Rover) up to the top.
To our surprise we eat an excellent lunch of stuffed peppers in the cafe nearby (experience has taught us not get too excited over the cooking in Tajikistan) and then each get a turn in the hot spring separately – it’s a nice way to relax and meet some locals.
It’s a gorgeous walk back down to the road and we stop off at the fort on the way back which boasts some very impressive views up the valley.
Just after the fort there is a footpath which takes you through a countryside short cut back down to the road.
We don’t go far after this excellent rest day – just a short half a kilometre from the village where we pitch the tent next to a makeshift volleyball court. Some local boys come and watch us getting set up before being called away to bring their goats home who are grazing nearby.
Day 3 – Yamchung to Ishkashim
Today was one of those days which passed without much happening. The scenery remained the same but the wind seriously picked up and we had it bashing in our faces all day long. Thankfully, after our first 30km we were back on paved road which was simply bliss after nearly 7 days of bumps, pot holes, washboards and sand!
It was a long day in the saddle but we rolled into Ishkashim by 7pm. This small town acts as the central hub of the Wakhan valley and there is a weekly exchange market with neighbouring Afghanistan.
Finally we would be able to restock on food properly – the shops between here and Langar have been woefully bare and we’ve had to rely on mostly homestays for lunch and dinner. (Our huge reserves of porridge oats and the abundance of apricot trees have meant breakfast hasn’t been a problem!)
Once arrived we duly turn our clocks back by one hour. (The eastern Pamirs work on the same time as Kyrgysztan but Western Tajikistan sets its clocks an hour behind… )
Our hostel allows us to pitch our tent in the garden but we get fed and are allowed to use the hot shower which thankfully still has a full tank despite the lack of electricity in the town that evening.
Only 100km to Khorog!
Day 4/5 – Ishkashim to Khorog
Total Distance: 73km followed by a half day of 39km
After replenishing our diesel and food stores we hit the road and eat up 40km by lunchtime.
The road is good even though the valley is much narrower here. Thankfully the wind isn’t so bad, in fact there were times where it pushed us along a bit!
We reach the village of Andarob where some local guys invite us to sleep in their garden, the stars are amazing that night and we sleep with the fly sheet off.
Next morning we complete the 39km to Khorog and arrive by lunchtime. The road on this stretch isn’t the best and by the time we arrive and struggle up the very steep hill towards the town I’m done.
After a delicious lunch by the river we, like every other traveller in Khorog, head out to the Pamir Lodge and spend the afternoon lounging in the sun.
Most cyclists take a water filter system away with them and the choice of which one to get depends on the kind of cycle tourer you are. Do you want to be completely self sufficient in terms of your water consumption or are you looking for something that you will only use in an absolute emergency? How much bottled water are you willing to buy? How fussy are you drinking straight from mountain springs? How far into secluded areas are you likely to go?
We became a lot less fussy as our trip progressed and with this our ability to fight off some bugs and bacteria has probably increased too. (Although we really probably should purify every time!)
Before we left we decided to buy a LifeStraw Mission ($119.15) which works by filling a 5L dry bag with water, attaching it to a special microfilter (gets rid of all viruses and bacteria) via a long tube, hanging it off a tree and letting gravity do its work.
The idea behind this purchase was that we would be able to filter a large amount of water which we could use for drinking and cooking without having to suck or pump the water clean ourselves (as many other filters require). Simple! Once you get the system going you’re left to get on with other things; no further effort required apart from swapping the bottles every so often.
At first the filter worked really well (it improves after a few uses too) but to be honest, we rarely had to use it in South East Asia as we were always buying bottled water. There were a couple of days in Cambodia and Thailand (where we were getting through 8-9L a day) when we found ourselves off the beaten track and needed to filter from a lake or river.
We used it slightly more in China when we were more adventurous in terms of our route and were making a conscious effort to reduce our plastic consumption. But we were often so high and so remote that we simply collected and drank water straight from the mountain streams.
Most of the time the water we were collecting was either very clear or had gone through some kind of pre filter to at least get rid of debris and dirt (e.g. In village wells and water collection points) but wasn’t necessarily treated against nasty bacteria and other waterborne infections.
With this in mind we bought a handheld UV Sterilisation Pen (SteriPEN Ultra $99.99) and had it shipped to Chengdu.
We’re currently carrying both the LifeStraw and the SteriPEN…
Why did we only give the LifeStraw a 2 star review?
It’s not very robust. One morning I pulled out the filter and found that the dirty water (red) tap was completely twisted until it was torn and thus completely useless. No idea how this happened but it made us realise how fragile the filter is – not ideal for two travellers covering 80km a day…Due to its simple design, the filter still worked without the red tap but only when one of us sat there holding our finger over the hole. A week later Paddy whittled a simple bung from a stick, not ideal but it works ok and we can again leave the system filtering while we set up camp or relax.
The filter is fairly bulky (measuring over a foot in length even when packed) and isn’t necessarily built to be kept in a bulging pannier, however careful you are when packing it.
There isn’t always a suitable place to hang the bag which means one of you needs to hold the bag up on your shoulder – this gets tiring as a 1.5L of water takes around 4-5mins to filter!
It’s hard to rid the filter completely of water even if you hang it out overnight or blow air through the system while the red tap is open; This leads firstly, to water leaking into your pannier and secondly, to limescale building up on the inside of the feed tube. I don’t think this necessarily affects the filter too much but can’t be too good for it either?!
LifeStraw customer service is terrible and it seems it’s impossible to buy more pre-filters. At the bottom of the water bag is a pre-filter which stops all the larger debris before the water feeds through the micro-filter. After a number of uses you must clean and then finally replace your pre-filter. The system comes with a number of spares but it’s common to lose things when travelling, and ours disappeared somewhere near the Tibetan border. After 3 emails (which were ignored) and trawling their website as well as the internet in general we’ve concluded that it is impossible to buy more spare pre-filters…. We even contacted a number of LifeStraw UK distributors none of whom were able to help us.
In conclusion, The LifeStraw Mission would be a good product for people who are camped somewhere fairly permanently, or at least not packing, unpacking and packing again multiple times a day like we are. It would also work better for people who have more storage space such as a camper-van or car.
It really is great to be able to leave the filter working while you set up camp and have something that works without any kind of power supply but you really need to have the time and space to pack the system away properly and unfortunately this means it just isn’t right for cycle tourers. We still use ours and we make it work but we wouldn’t buy it again.
The SteriPEN on the other hand is brilliant and we use it FAR more than we have ever used the LifeStraw. Some cyclists have complained about the pen needing to be re-charged but we’ve always been in a position to be able to re-charge it when needed. It’s probably not completely waterproof no but as with all our other electrical gadgets, we protect it by keeping it a waterproof pannier.
Other cyclists online have complained about their steriPEN braking but ours has been fine.
Of course some would say that the downside of a UV filter is that you can’t be sure you’ve decontaminated the ‘rim’ of the bottle… But if you think that most of the time you’ll be able to get clear water and just need a filter to kill the nasties then consider getting a UV pen instead. They are lightweight, compact, long-lasting and very quick. Just make sure you have a permanent water bottle with a wide enough top to use it correctly.
So we were in the famous ‘Pamirs’ the collection of high mountain (3000-5000m) pasture areas which span across the majority of Tajikistan and northern parts of neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The region attracts swathes of cyclists each year many of whom, it seems, take a 2-3 week holiday to cycle from Dushanbe to Osh/Bishkek.
We would be covering the area from the opposite direction, starting in the sparsely populated Eastern area of the Pamirs.
The snow peaks, high passes and elevated pastures would have to wait though as my achilles wasn’t feeling any better even after a rest day. After managing some very slow google searching via our Tajik SIM card we were able to diagnose the problem – my saddle position being way too high (I had raised it considerably a few days earlier because my knees had been hurting) resulting in me ‘ankling’ repeatedly.
Either way the damage had been done and anyone who’s hurt their achilles knows it can be pretty painful and slow to recover… A combination of ice, gentle stretches and ibuprofen over a further two days thankfully got me back to a point where I could ride again. During this period Paddy and I would intermittedly brake into this song by Toploader.
Murghab wasn’t a bad place to be stuck for a few extra days.
In fact, we both found the desert town quite charming, particularly the shipping container bazaar.
As the main central hub for the Eastern Pamirs, Murghab has been an important base for the region since the late 1890s when it became a military stronghold for the Russian troops who set up the Panirsky Post nearby. This garrison became an important hotspot during the ‘Great Game’ (as did the GBAO region as a whole) between Russia and Great Britain in the years that followed.
The rest days also gave us a chance to plan our route. We were pretty set on cycling the Wakhan corridor and after talking with a British couple who we’d met on the road a few days before, decided we’d cycle there via the Great Pamir which takes you south down and through the protected area of Zorkul Lake. It would be a very tough road but promised to be utterly secluded.
There was one snag, we needed a permit to ride this route and we weren’t sure if we could get one on this side of the M41. Fortunately after some ringing around we manage to get a number for a guy in Murghab who apparently issued permits. Here’s his direct number – 880880655
So with the permit sorted (15s each) and our panniers bulging with 5 days worth of provisions we set off on our Pamiri adventure.
Day 1: Murghab to beginning of the Istyk river
Distance: 83km / Ride Time: 6:39
A small climb of 200m greeted us a few kilometres out of Murghab where we left the river of the same name behind. Soon we found ourselves back in the moonscape scenery which typifies the eastern Pamirs.
We had 25km of excellent asphalt road before taking the left turning off where we left the M41 behind us. This was the start of 4 days of off-roading.
After 5km of washboards the road smoothed out to a great sandy compact track. There is so little traffic here that the road doesn’t have a chance to be churned up.
It really was beautiful and we were the only people for miles.
We saw no vehicles that day except one lonely truck carrying a large harvest of teresken which is collected extensively across the higher Pamirs to be used as fuel. It’s a slow growing (fast burning) plant – a 30cm shrub may be 50-80 years old – with an extensive root system meaning once it’s taken from the soil large sections of the mountainside are left unprotected from erosion. We’ve read it’s becoming a bit of a problem.
We made good headway and reached our first pass just after lunch. The pass although incredibly steep at the end was thankfully short-lived and we only had to push tandem a few metres over the top.
Here we found ourselves in another spectacular valley walled with razor sharp rocks and home to a huge colony of marmots.
Paddy gets obsessed with trying to capture one of these funny creatures on its hind legs for his friend Alan. Anyone who has seen this popular YouTube video will understand why…
It’s much greener here than the previous valley, assumedly due to a seasonal lake which we soon reach.
The lake, now that we’re in late July is completely dry. On the one hand, it’s fun to be able to cycle across it’s cracked surface; on the other hand, we’re running low on water as we were banking that there would be at least one stream still running down to it from the surrounding mountains.
It was already 3pm and we would now need to complete another 30km at least to get to the next reliable water supply – the Istyk river.
After a tough ride of 83km we reached the river and very tired and grumpy we pitch the tent down from a secluded farm where a yurt is also set up.
Day 2: Past Jarty Gumbez to camping spot by Kokjigit Lake
Distance: 40km / Ride Time: 4:39
It’s a beautiful morning and we wake early and eat breakfast by the river.
On our way back to the road we pop our heads into the yurt and ask if we can buy some bread. A Kyrgyz family are living there and so naturally they insist that we come inside for chai.
We get fed delicious warm goats milk, tea and rich airan (yoghurt). They also give us a huge homemade nan and when we try and to offer them some money they adamantly refuse.
We follow the river upstream through another broad based valley, the road getting bumpier as we go.
By 11am we’ve reached the hunting lodge named Jarty Gumbez which sits at the bottom of the next pass.
The wind has picked up by now and it’s not in our favour. We churn out the next 5km, pass a few more yurts on our way up until we reach the top.
Suddenly the Wakhan range of mountains is revealed to us and the Great Pamir, home to Zorkul Lake opens out in front of us. We start to descend into the basin through a magnificent carpet of purple flowers.
The road is very up and down and the gets worse and worse as we progress. There are lots of moments where it doesn’t really resemble a road at all… we camp overlooking the smaller Kokjigit lake.
Day 3: Kokjigit Lake to crossing of the beginning of Pamir River
Distance: 49km / Ride Time: 4:40
The water bottles which we left on the bike that night completely froze and we have to coax each other out of our warm cocoon the next morning. The sun soon reaches us though and we pack up the stuff and continue on our way.
The snow peaked mountains to our left slowly come into view as the morning haze lifts. Our first proper views of Afghanistan!
It’s slightly strange to find yourself a stones throw away from a country which your government has so very recently invaded.
Suddenly I find myself cycling along the country which, along with Iraq, has held such a unique place in our media and dominated our foreign policy for much of my adult life.
The road is TERRIBLE and it’s really slow progress. At 11am we take half an hour to explore an abandoned Russian military camp which sits overlooking Lake Zorkul right where the Tajik/Afghan borders meet.
The post, complete with its huge radio aerial, tank garages, rusting exercise bars and old oil tanks was a cool place to explore for a while.
Probably abandoned after the Soviet breakup in the 1990s we were surprised that not more of it hadn’t been looted.
It takes us the majority of the day to cycle the length of the lake. We keep having to push/lift the tandem through large streams and parts of ‘the road’ are made up of such big stones that it’s impossible for us to cycle. Again, there is very little traffic.
Lake Zorkul is a protected wildlife area although it seems management of the park appears to be pretty lax. We do spot some animals including a very large Tolai hare and lots of species of bird including, we think, some vultures – no snow leopards or Marco Polo sheep unfortunately.
We reach the point where the Pamir river starts to flow away from the lake. We would be following this body of water which acts as the border between the two countries for the next 6 days. The bridge across the river has completely caved in so we have to pull the tandem bare foot through a series of four rivers, me pushing and keeping the bike steady while Paddy pulls and manoeuvres from the front.
We camp just after this major crossing and despite the mozzies we both managed to take a shower in the shallows and have the luxury of washing our cycling clothes.
Day 4: Following the river to Khargush
Distance: 47km / Ride Time: 4:39
Today saw us complete the Zorkul loop and join back onto the main Wakhan corridor road at Khargush.
The mozzies pestered us all day and there were some tricky sections of road including parts where we had to cycle the bike through inches of sand – the tandem’s nemesis!
Actually, we experienced every kind of off road imaginable that day and hands down to Paddy, he steered the bike beautifully through all of it.
Bob Marley and The Wailers keep us chilled throughout this road ordeal that morning…
…and by 4pm we reach the army checkpoint at Khargush which guards over the entrance on this side of the lake. We were glad we had arranged the permit because they did ask to see it.
By a crazy chance, just as we’re approaching the checkpoint, 2 motorcycles buzz up the road behind us. It’s our lovely Dutch friends Peter and Leonie who we last saw in Sary-Tash. It’s a really strange coincidence but nice to catch up with them and hear which routes they have done through The Pamirs – pretty much everywhere – you can go so much faster when you have an engine.
So we had reached the top of the Wakhan corridor, here we would be cycling through the valley towards Khorog.
We don’t do much more that day, just another 10km down to the river which has now form into the mighty Panj. Despite the road being stony, sandy and full of washboards, compared to what we’ve come from, it feels wonderfully smooth and easy!
We stayed in Sary-Tash for our final night in Kyrgysztan. To our pleasant surprise Leonie and Peter, a lovely Dutch couple who are traveling by motorbike and who we met briefly on the road from Song-Kol Lake, arrived at our guesthouse late in the afternoon and we spent a pleasant evening with them over dinner in our guesthouse.
The next morning wasn’t a particularly early start, a mistake perhaps in light of what lay ahead – a significant climb up to the Tajik border post.
From there we would wind our way down to Karakol, climb back up to complete what is the highest peak of the Pamir, before finally reaching Murghab. We were banking on reaching Murghab in 3 days where we would enjoy a rest day before continuing on down towards the Wakhan valley.
It would end up being a gruelling three days….
Day 1: Sary-Tash to Tajik border post
Distance: 56.3km / Ride Time: 5:35
A cruel headwind greeted us as we set out that morning and it got colder as we gradually climbed up.
By lunchtime we had left the asphalt behind us and had already been forced to push the tandem barefoot through a river due to a collapsed bridge.
The prospect of reaching country no.7 that evening was keeping us both happy however and the scenery was pretty nice too.
We reached the Kyrgyz border post where a nice guard stamps us out, checks we’re OK with the oncoming altitude and reminds us to look out for the famous Marco Polo sheep. We’ll miss this kind of friendliness – bye bye Kyrgyzstan!
A 20km stretch of no mans land was now ahead of us before we would reach Tajikistan.
Just before the beginning of the pass proper we meet a bunch of cyclists coming the other way who warn us of a muddy and snowy climb.
As it happened, more from luck than good planning, we reach the top late in the afternoon when most of the mud had dried in the sun. Nevertheless it was a hard climb complete with some stiff switchback at the end and we were greeted by a howling wind at the top. A weather front closed in behind us and we wouldn’t be surprised if it had snowed again on that side of the pass that night.
We reach the Tajik post at 6pm (apparently it is open 24 hours) and are away again by 6:15. Not wanting to go much further, we set up camp just a few kilometres down from the border post, managing to hide from most of the wind by pitching our tent in a sheltered dip. It’s pretty desolate and dessert like up here and we huddle together in the tent while a thin layer of sand settles on our sleeping bag.
Day 2: Tajik border to 20km beyond Karakol
Distance: 79km / Ride Time: 4:57
An early and very cold start – our water bottles were half frozen! We shake the sand out of everything before packing up and we’re soon back on the road which turns back into asphalt.
A few minor climbs but the overall outlook is downhill. After the last pass we catch our first glimpses of Karakol Lake and can spot the small town perched on the shore on the opposite side. Its very beautiful and we spend some time lapping up the view.
We meet a friendly Russian cyclist who hands over a sticker of his own design for our bike. He points out Paddy’s Robbie Keene sticker and asks why I don’t have one of Gareth Bale! Wales’ recent success in the football has certainly put my little country on the international map!
We stop at a friendly homestay for lunch who also exchange the remainder of our Kyrgyz com into Tajik somoni, and then battle with a very strong side wind as we skirt around the lake.
We reach the valley on the far side and manage a few more kilometres of climbing before finding a suitable spot to shelter from the wind again. It’s a bit early but I’m really not feeling the best and I’m forced to lie in the tent while paddy cooks dinner. The longer I lie there the worse I feel. Paddy also starts to feel pretty rough at this point too. It’s definitely a stomach bug but I also wonder if the altitude is also having an effect. We’re at around 4200, probably the highest we’ve camped…
Day 3: Final stretch to Murghab
Distance: 105km / Ride Time: 6:22
After a frustratingly sleepless night we are both feeling in tatters the next morning. I’m marginally better than Paddy so pack up the tent while he slumps in a chair. It’s incredibly dusty and all our stuff is covered in the same grey filth.
We get on the bike without cooking breakfast, neither of us can stomach eating.
We’re both desperate to reach Murghab but with 105km and a very tough climb ahead, neither of us could see how we were going to make it. All we wanted was a bed!!
Fortunately as soon as we’re on the bike we both start to feel a little better. It’s a stunning morning, the road is good and we cycle through a vast open valley, the morning sun pouring down on a beautiful mountain range to our left.
Here we stock up on water and pass some abandoned farm buildings and houses. A short while later the road, to our dismay, turns back into a stony, sandy, washboard mess. It’s very hard going, and slow, and we’re both too tired and washed out to keep up a positive attitude.
My ankle around my achilles has started to really ache and Paddy’s shoulders are painful too.
By 12:30 we’ve reached the bottom of the pass which starts with a stiff climb which we struggle up at 3km an hour. We’re feeling too rotten to take in much of the view and as we reach the final climb we both end up cursing at this poor German guy who is taking lots of photos of us from his jeep as we struggle pass.
Despite having only eaten 2 iced buns and a handful of nuts each somehow we manage to reach the top by 2pm.
We still had 80km to Murghab, mostly down and flat, but we were both wrecked. Near the top of the other side we’re greeted by a cheery group of cyclists. With the news that the road would soon turn back into asphalt we spur ourselves on.
At 3pm I decide I can stomach a cheese sandwich so we stop and I convince Paddy to have some too.
We both feel much better for eating and thankfully the remainder of the journey is all paved if a bit bumpy in places. It’s pretty flat with a slight incline in our favour – exactly the kind of road where the tandem can really eat up miles and despite a strong headwind, with great effort, we manage to maintain a steady 25-27km for a good 90 minutes.
By 6pm we’re having to stop every 15 minutes. Our bodies are giving up on us. I pat Paddy’s back and wave the swarms of mosquitos away as he leans over his handlebars with a horrible headache.
At each stop we lie on the hot Tarmac getting ready for the next leg.
We finally roll into Murghab at 7.30pm and luckily meet two English cyclist who tell us about an affordable homestay. It’s a lovely place and we manage to bag their old room for just 30s each.
After a home cooked meal and a hot shower we’re both feeling very content and are super glad that we were able to make it to a bed! Bring on that lie in!
Festival going has always been a big part of our summer holidaying and with news from friends back home of their 2016 festival plans, we admit, we were feeling a little nostalgic. We were really glad therefore to have made it to our own little Kyrgyz mountain festival.
After a cold night, we wake to find the sun beating down on our tent. We lie there for a while comfortably listening to the sounds of people bustling past us, children laughing and food being prepared – in the background we recognise the familiar low hum of a generator.
Crawling out of our tent we find children running around in traditional costumes under a cloudless sky and adults blowing up balloons to decorate some temporary red tents which have appeared on the edge of the field.
The backdrop is spectacular and we cook breakfast before getting ready to enjoy the day’s events which promised to include live performances, yurt building and traditional horse games.
Paddy’s hopes for a beer tent were soon dashed but in all other respects it seemed we had found our very own ‘party in a field’.
By 10pm lots of locals had started to arrive by both horse and car.
Having gone back to fetch the sunscreen from the tent I find Paddy sitting cross legged on a large traditional shashlik rug surrounded by 7 or 8 local women. He’s encouraged to hold each of their children in turn.
The Belgian guys who we had met the previous night were also there and at about 11am a large party of other tourists from Osh also arrived. The majority of people there were locals though.
After a few opening speeches the festival kicks off in earnest with a couple of dance performances by local girls all proudly wearing their traditional outfits.
Next a mixed gender professional music group led by a Manasachi who performs excerpts of the famous Manas epoch.
After the performances we are all told to turn around to face the mountain behind where a bizzare staging of what the announcer calls ‘the traditional nomad movement’ is taking place.
This involved around 40 people processing across the grassy slopes down towards a semi-constructed yurt. Many of them are on horseback while others are leading heavily laden donkeys and yaks. There is also a camel – who, in the middle of the procession, spooked by something, causes havoc by running back up the mountain leaving a trail of objects in its wake.
The yurt building that followed was great fun however and it was interesting to see how the whole thing is constructed. Paddy has sworn he is going to build one when we get back home.
Once the wooden trellis walls are up the roof goes up by attaching about 60 curved beams to the circular tunduk which acts as the kind of ‘key stone’ to the whole structure.
The shape of the tunduk is represented in the Kyrgyz flag.
Once the wooden beams are tied together with rope and long belts of brightly coloured felt ribbon, the thick, sheep’s wool covers get wrapped around the exterior – first the walls and then the roof. Long ropes keep it all in place.
A team of six to eight skilled men can erect one of these things in around 60-90 minutes.
After a spectacular lunch we’re back in the field ready for the games to start. The first is a good ol’ fashion session of ‘rope pulling’ or as we know it – ‘tug of war’.
We tourists are asked if we’d like to form a team against some locals. Paddy gets involved in the men’s team and I have a go in the woman’s round.
Despite our best efforts we both find ourselves on the losing side – perhaps this says something about our scrawny build! I think we should stick to long distant cycling…
After the rope pulling each village nominates a man to represent them in a one on one tournament called yak pulling. Sadly the game doesn’t involve a yak. Instead the two men – attached by a rope pulled through their legs and around their necks – slowly crawl forwards attempting to pull their opponent over the centre line. Not surprisingly, none of the international guests were willing to put themselves forward for this game…
After yak pulling we were treated to a short stint of horseback wrestling followed by ‘coin picking’ where each opponent has a go at bending down from their horse to pick up as many coins from the ground as they can. They do this while the horse is cantering at top speed; it’s pretty crazy!
Nora our Dutch friend who is travelling across Asia on her motorcycle bravely took a turn at the coin picking. Unfortunately she didn’t manage to get any but she was pretty close and we were all very impressed with her brave attempt.
The day finished with the exhilarating traditional field game of Ulak Tartysh. The only way I can describe Ulak is by comparing it to a game of rugby union. But all the men are on horses and instead of playing with a ball they play with the beheaded carcass of a goat instead!
The aim of the game is to either pick up the carcass from the ground or wrestle it from your opponent before riding full pelt towards your goal ring, where the animal is dropped, earning a point for you team.
As you can imagine, it’s carnage, BUT incredibly entertaining to watch!
The weather stayed warm and dry the whole day and all in all, it was a very fitting end to our time in Kyrgyzstan.
It’s now time to head south, up and over the Tajik mountains. The Pamirs await!
The visa applications and the ride south from Bishkek via Song-Kol lake had both eaten into our schedule more than we expected so we were now planning to cross the Tajik border a week later.
Normally this wouldn’t be a problem for most countries but Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – our next two destinations – require you to put a specific date of entry and exit on your visa. On top of this, we needed to leave enough time to apply for the dreaded Turkmenistan visa in Dushanbe…
We were still OK on time as we had a 45 day visa for Tajikistan and there was no point stressing. In Osh we met a couple of other cyclists who had completed the Pamir, including the Wakhan valley, in around 22-24 days.
Our route to the border crossing would see us backtrack along the M41 back up to Sary-Tash where we had stopped for a night coming over the Irkeshtam pass from China 40 days previously.
We had heard that an annual horse festival was taking place over the weekend somewhere in the region so we were keen to see if we could fit this in on our way through. After visiting the website we discover it’s directly on our route towards the Tajik border, 5km from Gulcho.
We leave Osh on the Friday morning having spent Thursday cleaning the bike, stocking up on supplies and catching up with news back home.
We were keen to get to the horse games site that evening so we didn’t miss any of the festivities the next morning but the ride involved a long gradual incline, plus a hard climb over the Chyrchyk Pass. This meant we needed to hitch a ride.
We cycle 15km out of Osh and then pull up on a long straight section. Traffic is a bit on the slim side and all the vehicles which could take the tandem seem to be turning off or stopping just beyond where we’re stopped.
After an hour we admit defeat and get back on the bike and cycle another 10km up the road. We stop and make lunch and then try again. A nice chap and his little boy stop and we lift the tandem fully loaded into the back of his pick-up truck. He’s only going to the next village 13km but it still helps a lot.
Traffic is even slimmer here but after a few tries we managed to hail down a second ride and luckily this guy is going all the way past the turning to the festival.
It’s 4pm and we still have 15km to cycle up a steep track to get to the festival site. It’s a very beautiful setting and we pass many yurts on our way as we follow a small river up stream winding our way through the valley. By 5pm we’ve done 4.5km and we’re both starting to feel tired and hungry. Maybe we won’t make it up there before evening after all…
Luckily for us an empty pick-up truck trundles pass and we manage to steal a ride for the next 7km. After this the track gets VERY steep and the last kilometre is impossible for us to ride so we have to push.
Sweaty and breathless we push the tandem over the last ridge and the valley starts to open out. Paddy climbs up a green slope to check we’re in the right place and comes back accompanied by two adolescent boys. They help us push the bike up the last 500m and we find ourselves on a grassy plain, surrounded by pine wooded hills dotted with clusters of yurts.
We are greeted by the festival organisers who show us where we can pitch our tent. A number of happy helpers arrive and assist with our set up before getting distracted by the helinox chairs…
Later, some guys from Belgium who have hiked up here come over to say hello and we sit chatting with them while cooking dinner.
Happy to hear that the festival wouldn’t be kicking off until 10am we snuggle down and look forward to a lie in.