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!
Onwards through the Wakhan!