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