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.
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!