High Fives and Apricot Handups: Cycling the Pamir Highway
Photos and words by Amy Jurries
I pulled into camp early that afternoon, tired from a dusty, bumpy day in the heat with a slipped derailleur cable that forced me to ride the rolling terrain using only a couple of gears. I plopped down in the shade and chugged some sun-baked water as I began to hear rumblings from the Dutch cyclists in our group. They referred to a large number of texts from loved ones back home frantically asking if they were OK.
“OK how?” I asked one of the riders.
“A bunch of cyclists have been murdered right up the road,” he replied. “I guess it’s all over the news in Holland.”
As further, horrific details of the terrorist attack came in sporadically throughout the evening, we all sat in shock. A car filled with five IS-sympathizers rammed into a group of seven Western cyclists just outside of Kulob, then attacked them all with knives. Four died: two from the US, one from Switzerland, and one from the Netherlands. This was not only a little “too close to home,” but also completely opposite the Tajikistan we had come to know and love the past two weeks cycling along the Pamir Highway. Not to mention quite a blow to Tajikistan’s recently declared “Year of Tourism.”
Earlier that month, I had joined the TDA Global Cycling Silk Route expedition for a couple of sections that would see me traversing Central Asia over the course of five to six weeks, starting in Almaty, Kazakhstan and ending in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. After first crossing the meadow-filled Tien Shan mountain range of Kyrgyzstan, our Pamir Highway section began after a rest day in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
The Pamir Highway follows the M41 up through utterly remote and rugged high altitude terrain, skirting China and Pakistan before dropping down along the river-defined Afghan border into Dushanbe, Tajikistan some 1,338 kilometers later. As one of the only viable ways through the Pamir Mountain Range, the road once formed a link of the ancient Silk Road trade route before being modernized by the Soviets in the 1930s. It’s the world’s second highest road behind the Karakoram and includes six passes over 4000 meters, the highest topping out at 4655 meters.
While the road is paved in some areas (the rest is a formidable mix of baby-head-size rocks poking up through heavily corrugated sand), construction and maintenance levels vary substantially along the route. Apart from a nice stretch out of Osh, the road is heavily damaged along most of its length, succumbing to erosion, earthquakes, landslides, and avalanches. In short, it hurts.
After reading books such as The Great Game and Tournament of Shadows about the empire-clash between Russia and Britain, I was curious to see for myself this area of the world that holds such strategic importance still today. Ancient references to its Silk Road history sit side-by-side with modern day equivalents, whether it’s the ancient mud caravanserai overlooking the new shipping container bazaars or the stream of trucks transporting cheap plastic goods from China (and possibly loads of heroin), bouncing past herds of yaks.
Osh to Sary-Tash: 185 kilometers, 4,000 meters elevation gain
Leaving Osh early in the morning to beat the triple-digit heat of lower altitudes, the road climbed steadily up into the Pamir-Alai mountains. For the next two days, we would cross numerous mountain passes, each inching ever closer towards the 4000-meter mark. On more than one occasion, I was greeted by small children running out from their seasonal yurts to hand me bouquets of wildflowers to commemorate my summit.
After cresting the bizarrely named “40 Let Kyrgyzstan” pass at 3550 meters, the road dropped into the small village of Sary-Tash where we were treated to our first view of the larger snow-capped Pamirs beyond.
Sary-Tash sits at crossroads of sorts where the Pamir Highway continues south towards the Tajikistan border, while further east looms the Irkeshtam Pass and Kashgar, China just beyond. Van loads of aspiring mountaineers head west to hit base camp for Lenin Peak, the second-highest peak in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan at 7,134 meters.
Little did we know that the makeshift supermarkets here would be our last “Coke stop” until Murghab, with their spartan shelves of dry goods, lack of refrigeration, and boxes of potatoes piled on the floor. But there was vodka. Always vodka. During our ride, prized items included an ice-cold Coke if you could find it, Lays potato chips, animal crackers in bulk barrels, and for some – yogurt.
Sary-Tash to Karakul: 100 kilometers, 1550 meters elevation gain
While the Tajikistan border officially sits 44 kilometers from Sary-Tash, there is a 25 kilometer no man’s land from where sleepy armed guards stamp you out of Kyrgyzstan on one end before you get stamped in — threefold — to Tajikistan on the other side. This no man’s land was one of my favorite parts of the route as we bounced along rough gravel, through rivers, past families of whistling, rust-colored marmots, and treated to an alpenglow performance on the snowy Trans-Alai Range of the Pamirs. This unoccupied zone culminated in the 4282 meter Kyzyl Art pass, our first of the six passes over 4000 meters along the route.
Noticeable within an instant of crossing the border, Tajikistan proved to be a stark contrast to the lush-meadowed mountains of Kyrgyzstan behind us with its barren peaks and their swirling earthen hues. A new border fence remained our constant left-side companion, marking the moonscape frontier lands recently ceded to China.
Just out of reach was the fabled Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan — the consolation prize of The Great Game that I had read so much about in those books. I longed to see what it was these two once-great empires fought so hard over; for control of the roof of the world.
The first town past the border is Karakul, on the shores of a meteoric lake by the same name. A desolate place saved by its stunning location, Karakul resembled an abandoned army base where the courtyards of ramshackle mud houses overflowed with yak dung piles drying in preparation for the harsh winter ahead. With little in the way of economic opportunity, many families have turned their houses into homestays to survive. For $9, we could escape the hordes of mosquitoes (yes, mosquitoes) inside on the floor under heavy, felt-lined flower blankets, with a warm bowl of noodle soup and bread for lunch.
Karakul to Murghab: 134 kilometers, 950 meters elevation gain
By this point, I had resigned myself to the 5 kmph pace that goes with double digit-grade climbs at 4000-meter-plus altitudes and less than ideal road surfaces. I watched as the tire tracks from cyclists in front of me wove in and out of the punishing mixture of washboard sand and rock, trying in vain to find a smoother ride.
But slow progress was still progress, and I celebrated with a hazelnut wafer at the top 4655 meter Ak Baital Pass, the highest point of the Pamir Highway. Some form of pavement and a relatively long, albeit gradual descent to Murghab, was in our future.
Like a scene stolen straight out of a Star Wars film, the small white-washed town of Murghab rose seemingly out of nowhere in the middle of this bleak, high-altitude desert. Was this Tajikistan or Tatooine?
With little to nothing to do apart from the occasional game of volleyball with hotel staff under the baking sun, a quick roam through the somewhat depressing shipping container bazaar, or eating yet another meal at the one and only restaurant in town, a rest day in Murghab quickly left us stir crazy. Throw in half the group succumbing to the inevitable Tajikistan Tummy and I couldn’t wait to get back on my bike.
Murghab to Khorog: 316 kilometers, 2200 meters elevation gain
The Pamir Highway runs through the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous (GBAO) Region of Tajikistan and special permits are required to travel throughout. As we made our way towards Khorog, the military-manned checkpoints became more frequent.
One night was spent camped outside a somewhat-creepy former Soviet sanatorium, built atop a hot spring in the tiny town of Jelondy. When we arrived, there was a teachers conference at the sanatorium, with groups of men milling about alongside women in bright, floral dresses, all curious about and amused by the Lycra-clad foreigners who did not quite understand the etiquette of these public baths. Throw in a squat toilet outhouse with low barriers that made it a social affair and things couldn’t get much weirder.
Out of Jelondy, the slow descent along the Gunt River into Khorog proved another favorite section of the route, thanks to its never-ending amphitheater of 6000-meter peaks. It was like Chamonix on steroids but without all the people — only goats.
Khorog, the capital of the Pamirs, was a thriving metropolis compared to the rest of the villages we had ridden through — electricity, cafes, plenty of restaurants, supermarkets with refrigeration, and even a Mac Doland’s, complete with golden arches, a doctored poster of Donald Trump eating a burger, and Ronald Mac Doland wearing a Pamiri hat.
We arrived during the Roof of the World Festival Festival which celebrates Pamiri traditions with song and dance performances held in the city central park. For some reason we failed to uncover, there was a band from Chicago as the guest of honor.
Khorog to Dushanbe: 603 kilometers, 8300 meters elevation gain
Rolling out of Khorog, the Panj River quickly flowed into sight, carving out the valley in front of us while forming the official border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. We cycled through numerous tiny villages nestled along the banks, sprawling up into the surrounding riverine valleys. After the solitude of high altitude, it was nice to once again witness daily life along the route — women sweeping doorways, villagers taking cows or sheep for their morning walk to graze, the smell of baking bread. There was a constant flow of children, brimming with thousands of questions to ask the crazy two-wheeled foreigner like “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” before outstretching a hand to receive a high five as I rode past.
With Afghanistan at times just a stone’s throw away, small groups of Tajik soldiers dressed head to toe in Russian camouflage regularly strolled along the road in a cursory show of border patrol. It’s not likely anyone would dare swim across the raging river, anyway.
Our goal was to reach Dushanbe via Kulob in six days time, but only two days in, our plans came to an abrupt end. At the time, the exact whereabouts and status of the attackers was still unknown, so the decision was taken to abandon our ride and bus the rest of the way to the capital.
By the time we reached Dushanbe, our dust-covered, battle-weary bikes and broken down bodies said it all. Our Pamir Highway journey may have thrown out a daily series of grueling, physicals challenges, but these were peppered with moments of euphoria at riding in such a wild, remote land amidst constant acts of human kindness. While I am devastated for the families of the attack victims, it is this that I will choose to remember about Tajikistan.
We were camped in a tiny village the night we found out about the terrorist attack. The villagers threw us a party, complete with amateur electronic keyboard band and beer retrieved from 40 kilometers up the extremely rough road. As we went to bed in our tents that night, many of the villagers stayed awake along the street, in what we presume was a bid to protect us in case the terrorists had fled in our direction.
These types of stories are not unique — almost everyone had been invited into a stranger’s house for bottomless cups of tea and food, given handfuls of apricots to eat as a snack, had cars pull over offering to refill water bottles in the heat or help change a flat, or coaxed into the shade to throw back a few shots of vodka as fortification for the route ahead.
As Jay Austin, one of the cyclists killed in the terrorist attack, revealed on his blog with Lauren Geoghegan, Simply Cycling:
“By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind,” he wrote.
“No greater revelation has come from our journey than this.”
I couldn’t agree more.
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