The Unknown Road to the High Pamir

Up to this point, the route-finding came easy in Kyrgyzstan. The North-Eastern zone of the country has seen its fair share of bikepackers floating along its gravel tracks to weed through the wealth of options available. As we made our way south from the small oasis city of Baetov, our direction was less clear. We knew we’d be heading for Northern Tajikistan, but had no real idea about how we’d end up there or what type of riding we’d be in for along the way.

Avoiding the main roads in Kyrgyzstan is absolutely critical as the drivers here have a well-earned reputation for being some of the worst on planet Earth. Without a huge variety of tracks connecting the North to the South, and the big urban centers of Jalalabad and Osh nearby, we feared the road could become congested. Thankfully, on the one we decided to take, the surface was still rough enough to cut out most of the traffic and gave us one of the best sunset descents we’ve had in all of Asia. With a big highway (slowly) coming in nearby, this road should turn into a relic that is ripe for totally traffic-free riding within the next year or two.

Aside from a couple of lengthy steep-sided sections, the camping was prime and the village locals along the way were as lively as ever! Maybe even a touch too-lively in fact as we found a noticeable uptick in dudes drowning in cheap vodka the further we headed toward the South. One of the biggest holdovers from the Soviet era. As anyone who has traveled by bicycle knows, interactions we these folks can turn from entertaining to disturbing in the span of one or two shots, so it was a good time to refresh my drunk-repellant skills, which I hadn’t used much since Bolivia.

Thankfully these interactions are typically harmless around here and if there are other locals around, they’ll usually step in and offer up a distraction so that we can make a swift escape. This is not always the case in the rest of the world.

We arrived in Osh after less than two weeks from our first major run-in with “Tian-Shan Tummy” as featured in my last post. After a couple of days off to check out the largest market in Kyrgyzstan, it hit us again. This time it wasn’t some extra-tangy mystery meat floating around in a shepherd’s stew, but the “fancy” pizza and kebab joint that got us. This only reinforced my idea that the best places to go are always the ones that are filled with the most locals, not the places with the best reviews on Google.

With two bouts of food poisoning in a two-week span, it was starting to feel like Kyrgyzstan was trying to tell us to take a hint and GTFO, so we prepped our Tajik visas and got ready for the last leg of the journey toward the border.

Preferring to avoid the less interesting sections of the classic Pamir highway, which is one of the most popular bike touring routes in the world, we asked around to some of our Instagram friends who have been through this neck of the woods, looking for hints toward a more off-the-beaten-path option. As he often does, our buddy Justin Bill came through with a wild one that he managed to find the previous year. No tracks on the map, just some faint zig-zags on satellite images, crossed fingers, and a few days worth of supplies. He assured us, however, that it does connect to where we’re headed and that the scenery was up there with the best that the region has to offer, so that was more than enough convincing for me!  After all, the most rewarding places are often the ones you go into knowing the least about.

It started innocently enough with a gradual climb up a long valley that slowly unveiled the mountain peaks which had been hiding away in a haze of clouds the previous days. The innocence disappeared pretty dramatically when we made a sharp left turn off of the primary road to find ourselves huffing and puffing up 15% grades on an unforgiving jeep road.

I’m not gonna say there weren’t murmurs of us cursing the name of Justin Bill under our breath at various points throughout this climb… We tried to not even allude to the two additional sharp ascents that we knew would follow the one we were currently hauling our bikes up. Sometimes if you think too far ahead it will just seem overwhelming.

After a night sleeping on a local’s porch, we woke up to the sounds of sheep heading out to graze, threw some oats in the pot, and pushed our way up the final pitch toward the pass. Sure the scenery was nice, but the hours of on-and-off pushing since the previous afternoon was starting to wear us down. The previous weeks of food poisoning probably didn’t help either.  Morale was pretty low.

Then it all changed…

We arrived at the summit to find rugged peaks rising up all around us and a road flowing along the mountainside just below, with a valley sprawled out as far as the eye could see. This is what we were after.

An SUV pulled up next to us, only the second car we’d seen all day. Opening his window, a local man leaned out and said, “Welcome! You’re the first foreigners who’ve come through here all year!” with a smile.  Fall had gripped these mountains, so “the season” was essentially over, meaning we’d also likely be the last. We wondered to ourselves if the last foreigner to come through was none other than our friend Justin Bill the previous fall.

We continued through the valley, cruising up the second pass with relative ease. The weather was noticeably shifting. The clouds gathered (as they often due in Kyrgyzstan) and small pellets of ice started to casually fall from the sky. Looking to retreat to lower ground for the night before it got any worse, we pedaled over the pass thinking we’d spend no time at its frosty summit before plummeting into the valley below.

Those plans were immediately derailed when a ribbon of road unwound in front of us like a coiled serpent. We couldn’t help but stop and admire the view for as long as we could battle the cold summit breeze.  Needless to say, it was worth every shiver and shake.

Many of the local shepherds had already packed up and left for the season. When he told us about this route, Justin mentioned a friendly man whose house he stayed at for a day… “The last home before the third pass”.  It was the middle of nowhere. An isolated plateau tucked in the mountains along with a handful of other huts for shepherds to use in the summer. We had it marked down and wanted nothing more than to show up to his place to share a photo Justin had sent us from his time there and amuse ourselves with how small the world can be. Sadly, like the packed-up yurts we had been seeing for the past few days indicated, this valley had already been abandoned for the winter.

Dropping down from the final pass, the occasional small cluster of huts slowly turned into homes, and then eventually full-fledged towns. The paved paradise of the Pamir Highway was just around the bend, which meant we’d soon cross into the wild desolation of our next destination… Tajikistan.