Solo in the Pamir Highway

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I have a healthy respect for mountains and the Pamir Highway being the second-highest road in the world with several passes over 4,000 mt (13,000ft), the highest standing at a serious 4,655mt (15,272ft),  deserved all my respect.  I had never planned to cycle in the Pamir on my own but circumstances meant I ended up doing it solo,  something I wasn’t fully happy about. 

The Persians called the Pamir “the roof of the world”. The highest peaks in the world are in the Himalayas but the Pamirs are the main orographic crux in Asia from which the highest ranges in the world radiate: the Hindu Kush to the northwest, the Tien Shan system to lhe northeast, the Karakorum and Himalaya ranges to the southeast.

rps20160703_095538In its full length,  the Highway goes from Osh, Kyrgyzstan and traverses the whole of Tajikistan to end in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.  I cycled it from Dushanbe to Osh via the Northern route to Kala-i-Khumb and the Wakham Valley. 

I stayed in Dushanbe a few days.  I really needed a rest after Uzbekistan. Vero,  a Warmshowers member,  provided the oasis of peace I desperately needed and a community of cyclists to  share stories,  tips,  meals…  I found myself feeling delighted having a little family for a few days but missing my loved ones even more.

My Dushanbe family
My Dushanbe family

Vero is one of the organisers of the Dushanbe Critical Mass and it felt really fitting to attend the event and get back on the road after it finished. It felt good being back on the bike and being with Edmund,  one of the cyclists I met at Vero’s. We followed a beautiful fertile valley,  the road edged by herbs and wild flowers.  We had a taster of storms,  the powerful wind of the region,  sadly headwind,  and the huge landslides that regularly block the road.

The road surface was pretty bad.   Carved in the side of the mountain, it followed a narrow  canyon with a very noisy,  chocolate coloured river forever present.  Clusters of rhubarb sellers sat by the side of the road and children came running to my encounter in villages trying to sell me freshly picked mulberries. I overtook shepherds  taking their flocks to the higher pastures,  donkeys loaded with all their belongings.

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Rhubarb sellers
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Flocks moving to summer pastures

After a police checkpoint, in the golden light of the evening,  I crossed and iron bridge and the road got even worse and  narrower.  Excitement grew inside me,  a feeling I was entering a remote world. Me,  Blanca, was in the Pamir Highway!

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Crossing this bridge I felt really excited

Over the next couple of days I had to ford rivers where the road had totally dissappeared; each time I had to take all the luggage of my bike and do several trips  until everything was on the other side.  Those times I wished I was bigger and stronger or with someone else,  life would have been easier then. I also had to stop regularly to rest,  each time I told myself it was a good thing as it gave me the opportunity to look around. With the bad state of the road,  it was too dangerous to cycle and look.

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Several times the road just disappeared

In the Northern route to Kala-i-Khumb I encountered my first high pass 3,252 Mt,  the Saghirdasht pass. I was really nervous about it,  what would feel  like with my heavy bike? I camped in the last village before the pass to give myself a whole day to cross it.  The whole village knew I was there.  Soon I was surrounded by women and children,  someone brought me bread an creamy yoghurt and someone else invited me to go to their house. I declined the offer,  somehow I didn’t have the energy to be social.  I needed my all for the cycling.

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Children loved my bike

The following day,  as I was leaving the village,  a really old man bent over his cane offered me tea, his generosity moved me.  As I joined the “main” road tears were prickling  my eyes.  Once more I felt immensely lucky.

After some serious pushing amidst thunder echoing in the adjoining valleys I reached my first high pass.  I had made it! The descent wasn’t easy but the landscape was stunning and by late afternoon I reached Kala-i-Khumb and rejoined the M41 that would take me to Khorog where I would leave it again to follow the WakhamValley.

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Luckily the storm didn’t come my way
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Happy to have reached the pass
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The road down from the pass to Kala-i-Khumb
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Saturday Shopping

Just after Kala-i-Khumb I had the chance to visit the Afghan Market. Tajiks and Afghans were busy trading,  I wandered around the market soaking up the atmosphere and I closed my eyes to listen to the hubbub of shoppers and sellers.  With my eyes closed I felt I could be back in one of the London markets on a Saturday morning.

The road went through villages and in each one of them hords of children came running to say hullo,  asking  my name,  demanding a high five and standing in front of my path as they did so.  I found myself getting really crossed with them in a totally irrational way and thinking:  “it’s the kids and not the lorries,  the landslides or the bad roads that were the real hazards!” I just wanted to be left alone with my cycling!!!

In this section of the road there were lots of big Chinese lorries  pulling big trailers.  They arrived in caravans of 3 or 4 and you heard them getting close enveloped in huge clouds of dust.  The road is so narrow that it’s necessary to stop and let them pass,  there is not enough room for them and a bike. For a moment the world dissappeared in dust,  only to appear again in its full glory,  mountains,  the river and Afghanistan just a few metres away on the other side.

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Looking back at the road cycled. Afghanistan is on the left of the picture
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Afghan houses across the river

In this section too I had some wonderful encounters: The lorry driver that gave me some apricots that were pure nectar; Lluis and Jenn walking from Bangkok to Barcelona with whom I shared precious exchanges by the side if the road; Sabir,  a Pamiri de-miner working to get rid of the landmines that litter the countryside in this part of the country who told me his dreams and hopes;  three little children that were my friends for the afternoon and Edmund whom I thought I wouldn’t see again.

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Delighted to see my friend again!

The road was incredibly beautiful and continued next to the river with its ups and downs,  the sound of the water echoing of the walls of the canyon,  all the way to Khorog. I cycled and pushed and just before Khorog I faced some fierce headwind but I was determined to get to the village which held the promise of a shower and an Indian restaurant.

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After 4 days in Khorog and 4 curries it was time to enjoy the Wakham Valley.  I remembered looking at the map at home in London thinking how close that was to Afghanistan and wondering how safe it would be and now here I was.

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Wakham Valley

Afghanistan was closer than ever.  I followed the beautiful Valley, huge bushes of   pink and white dog roses everywhere. A football match in progress in a village in the Tajik side and a few hundred metres ahead another football match in the Afghan side reminded me that we are not that different after all.

When at a turn of the road I saw very big, snowy mountains I felt the excitement grow inside me.  Opening my eyes to them in the morning to them was pure joy.  I love mountains.

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Serious WOW factor!

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The views got more dramatic – mountains,  deep canyons and valleys,  Pamiri villages with their square houses and water running everywhere,  shrine like places full of horns of animals,  iron rich water springs dying the soil red.  I gloated on it all and eventually got to Langar from where I turned North to rejoin the M41.

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A high pass was between me an the M41.  At 4,344 mt,  the Khargush pass was the highest I had climbed in this trip. The road was worse than ever,  washboards and sand mixed with gravel made me have to push quite a lot.  I camped just below the Khargush pass,  more awe inspiring views in a bleak kind of way.  The pass,  however,  was a bit of a non event.  I only realised I had gone through it when the road kept on going down.  It really felt very remote inside a deep,  very hot canyon like valley.  I went down and down,  having to get off my bike every now and again because of the sand and the washboards. Eventually I made it to the asphalt road and I thought I was flying when I reached the settlement of Alichur.

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On the way to Khargush pass
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Lunar landscape

 

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Sunset from my tent
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The road to Alichur

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And in the middle of nowhere Alichur

From there to Murghab was a great ride in an asphalt road with tailwind.  It was such a relief to be able to get some sort of rhythm in the cycling and to met quite a few cyclists,  the highlight being a group of four women going in the opposite direction. They gave me a real burst of energy. Smiling,  I was more able to enjoy the astonishing landscape with incredible rock formations,  mountains,  side valleys.  I was in awe most of the day.

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Wonderful road encounter!
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Murghab here I come

In Murghab I had a lovely surprise,  not only I met with Marko, a cyclist from Slovenia that I had met a couple of times earlier but also saw Tina and Serban,  and Marc and Fabrece some Swiss cyclists that I had first met in Khorog.  It  was a great reunion. Beers were had and stories exchanged. Amazing how close one feels to people quickly in these far away lands. And the biggest surprise of all was meeting James whom I had met in the UK at the first Cycle Touring Festival, incredible to meet again in the middle of nowhere.  I was very moved by the meeting.

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Murghab container bazaar

I then had a day off the bike being a tourist on a 4×4 with Marko. We stopped at salt lakes infested with mosquitos, at yurts where we were offered yak cream and yoghurt,  at remote villages in the border with China,  at the highest (in elevation) sand dunes in the world…

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Off the bike and being driven – nice change!

 

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Local herder

 

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Chinese border
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Highest dunes in the world

The next leg of the trip was to the Kyrgyzstan border via the lake Karakul and the highest pass of the Highway,  Akbaital pass at 4,655 mt. And slowly, very slowly I climbed to the pass enjoying the extraordinary colours in the mountains around me. The change of scenery the other side of the pass was amazing.  A truly lunar landscape greeted me as well as a ferocious headwind. I had  had headwind since Murghab but now it was so strong that I had to put my waterproof on because I felt really cold.

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Feathering in the mountains
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Sign to the pass
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Stunning colours
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Lunar landscape after the pass

Going down needed all my concentration,  again gravel and washboards.  I stopped regularly to look at this wide valley with nothing,  nothing but bare mountains and some abandoned buildings here and there. And then I saw lake Karakul,  impossibly blue.  A  note of bright colour in the middle of this monochrome world.  If I hadn’t seen it myself and someone had show me a photo I would have said that it was photoshopped.

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Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate!
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Beautiful Karakul

In Karakul I stayed in a nice and basic homestay.  A bucket of warm water provided a blissful shower and a steamy bowl of soup a welcome change from the instant noodles that had been my camping diet.

Suddenly,  Kyrgyzstan wasn’t far away.  Only two more mountain passes away.  Altogether I would have crossed 6 to get there from Dushanbe  (4 over 4000 mt).

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Last pass before Kyrgyzstan

The Kyrgyz side was once more populated. Yurts dotted the land at the foot of huge 7000+mt peaks.

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Lenin peak
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Sary Moghul bazaar
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Yurt village

In Sary Tash it was lovely to meet again with my 4 Swiss friends with whom I continued all the way to Osh always accompanied by headwind!  

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Lovely Swiss friends at the pass
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Lenin welcomes me to Osh

The Pamir Highway required all  my energy. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life.  At the end of it I felt exhausted physically and emotionally. I am sure that when I’m rested and I look back at the 1,374 km I rode between Dushanbe and Osh,  at the raw beauty of the landscapes I went through; when I think about the kindness of the Pamiri people and the smiles of their children,  I will know how much the experience has enriched me but right this second a siesta is what is called for!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

38 thoughts on “Solo in the Pamir Highway”

  1. Y la aventura se intensifica!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Besos campeona! Todo nuestro apoyo desde la comodidad del sofá, jeje!

    Dentro de 4 días hará un año que estás cumpliendo tu sueño.
    Admirable!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Disfruta todo lo que puedas y sufre lo menos posible. Besosxxxxx

  2. Oh Blanka well done. You put me to shame.! My efforts are walking from Glasgow with Dorothy and going up the Ben. But I love following you on you’r journey. And thank you for being so diligent with photographs. Fantastic.
    Love Margaret.

  3. Wow! So fantastic – and admirable. I could not in a million years do what you are doing, but would love to.

  4. Seriously Blanca you are amazing. I can’t believe you’re still out there. I thought my life was quite exciting but you put me to shame.

    What are the next plans? Do you have a destination that will mark the end or will just keep on trucking?

  5. Holaaaaa!!!!

    He leído casi sin respirar tu relato…¡¡¡vaya aventurón, Blanca!!!
    Increíble verte en la cima del mundo a golpe de ilusión y fe y desde luego de con el poder de lo más proverbial en ti: tu alegría de vivir. Resistente y tenaz como el metal, ligera y suave como el viento. (Me ha salido un slogan de bici…jajajaja…será que os estáis contagiando mutuamente…).

    Un abrazo enorme de parte de todos los que por aquí te queremos.

    Ánimo y cuídate mucho.

    Pilar

  6. Amazingly beautiful, your pictures and words take me into a world of adventure I will probably never encounter myself but your spirit and true grit keep me enthralled as those dusty miles disappear beneath your pedals. Keeping you in my prayers for a safe onward journey and many happy days to come. Denise

  7. You are amazing. I’m full of admiration and I’m really enjoying following your incredible adventure. Thank you.

  8. Wonderful narration illustrated with pictures. I wonder if, how and when I could do such a journey from Hong Kong to london.

    Well done and keep it up.

  9. Blanca you are more than an inspiration because I can’t get from here to Stokey but when i get fed up wityh all the chaos here I can think of you climbing 4000m mountains and it makes me feel better. Pam xxx

  10. you are truly amazing Blanca, up there on the roof of the world. It’s lovely you’re getting such a welcome from other travellers and people living along the road. What a world away from the Brexit, political crises and scary political times back home. Stay safe lovely friend and keep on having a wonderful trip. great big hug!
    carol xxxx

  11. Amazing! Next time you’re facing the prospect of going solo and not liking it, drop me a line! As another female, usually solo cyclist, I can definitely relate! 🙂

  12. Wow, Bianca, what can I say? Fabulous woman you – what an absolutely amazing adventure! I’m not yet out of Europe – but don’t think I’ll be doing the Pamir Highway.

  13. Hi Blanca
    What a star you are cycling over all those mountains. I love the photo of the children with your bike! You are not missing things in the UK what with all the Brexit nonsense etc. It is unbelievable.

    My main activity is my allotment just now – and printmaking.
    Lots of love Linda

  14. What wonderful reading from my wonderful friend! You are amazing Blanca. With every post your journey gets more challenging – and you just rise to the challenge. I feel reassured when you tell us you meet up with others along the way – because we do worry about you. You are truly having the adventure of a lifetime and it is YOU who are making it happen. As we make hay here on the farm I cannot help but contrast our lives with those of the people you encounter. Next time I pick rhubarb from my garden I will think of those folks selling it at the roadside! Thoughts and prayers for your continued wellbeing on this fantastic journey. Xxx

  15. Asisto boquiabierto al espectáculo que nos brindas. Como “ciclistilla” que se atreve a hacer de vez en cuando pequeños viajes en bicicleta, puedo decir que la aventura que afrontas es simplemente alucinante.

    Sé que no lo necesitas, pero te envío todo mi cariño y apoyo. Todo es tremendamente hermoso en las fotos, pero no quiero ni imaginarme qué será, llevándolo a nuestra escala, “llegar exhausta física y emocionalmente” al final de una de esas etapas.

    Un beso todo lo fuerte quieras.

  16. Your journey just keeps getting more amazing and incredulous! Congratulations on doing the Pamir solo! Love all the photos.
    Stay safe and keep on rockin’ it Blanca.
    xx Kim

  17. Blanca WOW what an incredible part of your journey across the world! The photos are amazing and your commentary brings it alive to us reading it. Human kindness is all around you whether it be friendship or food or shelter and long may that last. We think and talk about you dearly and miss you so much. Take care, keep safe and keep writing my lovely friend! Lots of love Kay xx

  18. Blanca ,
    Thanks for another beautiful post from your amazing adventure. I love the honesty, humour and photos! You definitely have a book there.
    Sarah
    Xx

  19. Wow, Blanca, you are amazing! What truly inspiring adventure. Sending loads and loads of love.
    Dagmar xx

  20. Blanca, you are truly one brave and inspirational lady! I am in awe of your courage, tackling that immense wilderness all alone. You should be so proud of yourself, as we are of you. We are always telling our friends of this wonderful woman we met at the Cycle Touring Festival who is now cycling around the world on her own. I love reading about your travels and looking at your stunning photos. I sense sometimes that you are homesick, missing your family and friends. I know what that feels like, and my heart goes out to you. It is good that you meet fellow cyclists with whom you can spend time and share stories, and perhaps even travel with for a while. They are part of your tribe. I look forward to your next blog. Safe travels. PS Foxtrot is still looking good, although a little dusty around the edges!

  21. Blanca, you are just amazing! What a wonderful account and such evocative pictures. The altitude and terrain sound really tough, I hope you had a good long siesta! xxx

  22. Blanca I have read and re-read this blog, left it and come back to it again the next day. Your account of this achievement is beautiful, you describe your vulnerability whilst your strength and courage shine through…… You are amazing truly truly amazing. The pictures are stunning. Thank you for capturing and sharing your journey in this way. Hugs

  23. What you have achieved is truely remarkable. You are one in many millions. Not only must you have huge reserves of fortitude but the physical challenges are those at which a top athlete would balk. The combination of solitude, challenge both physical and mental make you pretty unique, a one off. Whilst I am sure you are determined to continue. You do know that it is your decision when you stop and come home to family and friends and write the book. Love you. Sonia x

  24. Dear, dear Blanca – I just got back from a 10 day work trip to New Zealand and was so delighted to read this lovely and astounding post. When I haven’t seen one for a while I do start to fret so I am both relieved and awed when one arrives. Your determination and strength – amazing! Much love for a continued safe journey. Patricia

  25. Hi Blanca,
    It was so nice to meet with you in the Pamir. I think about you every time I wear my new reading glasses (so glad you found new ones in Murghab….).
    Looking forward to reading about your crossing of China.
    Take care

    1. Hi dude, as I don’t have Blanca’s email would you forward her my last email (the one with the link on the pictures) !?

  26. Hello Blanca ! I hope you’re doing well in China. I’ve done some sorting in my pictures and just sent a link to Tina, Sander and Marc. I think Marc has your email, I’ll ask him to forward it !
    All the best !

  27. Hi Blanca,
    Lost for words! To achieve that climb, on your own, on those surfaces, I’m torn between awe and huge relief. My heart lifts when I see those mountains, so, so beautiful. And just as beautiful, those little moments of generosity and kindness from strangers on the way. It gives us some comfort that you’re meeting fellow adventurous spirits too, some companionship and hopefully some knowledge of the road ahead. Take care my brave amazing friend, thinking of you lots! xxx

  28. Hola Txuri,

    Leo con algo de retraso el último capítulo de tu aventura y es IMPRESINANTE !!!
    Ya he visto en una de tus fotos con los niños y tu bicicleta donde llevas a Ane

    Mucho ánimo y un beso fuerte

  29. Hi Blanca, it’s Saturday 27 August in London and I’ve just read your latest blog. I think about you often and wonder how you’re getting on, so thank you for your wonderful photos and blog. Like your other friends and admirers, I so admire what you are doing and hope you keep safe and keep on with your rest days. Are you going to India? I must look at your plans and map. Take care, love from Shân and Avril says hi too. Xxx

  30. Hey Blanca, we met just briefly while you were having your cup of tea, and invited me for some cookies, after Karakol lake in Tajikistan. I hope you found a good camping spot afterwards, before the final battle with the Kyzyl Art pass. Finally, long time after this day, I have time to have a look at your stories here! I’m super glad to see that you keep on cycling, and keeping my fingers crossed for it to continue well. Greetings from Poland, where I eventually landed!

  31. Hi Blanca,

    Thank you for the article about climbing Pamir. I am solo female on the road since 2011, and in 20 days I’m gonna cycling Pamir by myself. I will cycle in oposite direction, but anyway some tips I found here will help me.

    Safe roads!

    Snezana

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