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!