Part 1 / The Pamir Highway (M41)
We were cycling in the centrefold of the National Geographic magazine, amongst the special edition on the Pamir Highway. Many times we felt as if we were turning the glossy pages and absorbing the magnificent range of mountains and plateaus, but we were right in it. Since the last post (Dushanbe to Khorog stage) we have cycled some 320km, which is not far for 5-6 days but the altitude and terrain have been testing. We have relished every stretch of the road, which has been a privilege to ride. We have never experienced the silence, the space, and beautiful landscapes for so long. It hasn’t all been a bed of roses, in fact we both experienced one of of most challenging and emotional days during this stage of the journey.
We arrived in Murgab at lunch time (10.10.17) to the Pamir Hotel, which has been a significant milestone (and will be the turning point off the highway and into China). The town is a major point along the highway, for stocking up, recharging and planning the next stage. Murgab has a large Kyrgyz/Tajik population. The bazar has a twist, it is made up of many shipping containers or old trucks. They have been converted with windows, doors and stocked up with many Chinese goods, rather than Russian. Not quite container city or London’s Shoreditch Pop-Up units.
The last 6 days have taken us over 2 mountain passes of over 4200metres and we have never dropped below 3400metres for 4 days. This is not an easy workout, we have both struggled to catch our breath when going up hill and at times at rest. It’s clean air but at this altitude you struggle when exercising but thankfully we have not suffered any major altitude sickness or Pamir bugs which we had read about and told by other past cyclists, that every cyclist gets ill! We both expressed before the route how scared and apprehensive we were at undertaking the Pamir Highway (the worlds second highest road) but it has been more achievable and fulfilling than we thought.
It’s the end of the season in the Pamir and there are very few tourists in 4×4 tours passing us and we had only meet 1 group of 4 cyclists in the last 5 days, heading in the opposite direction. At times we felt like the only ones still cycling. The first few days on the road treated us to bad weather, cloudy, cold and rain at night, but then blue skies returned with a cold bite in the air.
Cycling at altitude has been very cold, we are wearing all of winter clothes that were last used in April. It’s hard to believe only 3-4 weeks ago we were complaining how hot is was and now in the mountains we wish for those warmer times.
We have seen continued generosity on the road even with few cars and lorries passing us. A pick up truck stopped and out poured 4 people, all greeting us and giving us a kilo of apples and fresh tandiri bread (our favourite). The next day we saw the same truck and driver who this time brought out his vodka and at 10.30am we where drinking to health.
The first pass has been the toughest day and brought us both to tears at different times. The road up and down was terrible with strong winds in many directions. We both were pushed off our bikes due to the wind and rocks, but thankfully unhurt. Pushing our bikes at steep unstable sections was exhausting (loaded bikes 25-35kilo+ bikes) and this brought me to fatigue tears. As we reached the pass the weather became stormy and snow began to fall, the air when descending was so painfully cold and cutting, this is when I heard Barbara crying and shouting ” I want to go home, this is a hell hole”. We decided to find a spot to camp and get out of the cruel weather. We found a disused semi structure or pen that had walls for wind protection. There were 2 Yak skins left and lots of sheep and goats pooh but it was a shelter for the night. The night was cold and everything froze even some ice had formed in the tent. We were warm as our kit was good but it took several hours once the sun was up to thaw things. The morning was glorious, bright blue skies and a warming autumn sun, Barbara didn’t want to go home today!
The next few days and nights were glorious and we managed to get close to herds of yaks and sample real homestay hospitality. We stay in Jelondy a natural hot spring village and bathed in the guest houses hot pool. This was so good for our bones and muscles. We stayed in a homestay ‘Nur’ in Alichur which was fab as they looked after us and cooked vegetarian food but the best bit was their separate sauna building. This was beautifully built and it served as a sauna and wash room. We bathed and again warmed our core up. The next night over the second mountain pass (which was more enjoyable and the roads were in better condition) we heard by the other cyclists that there was a homestay in the only building for miles. We sampled real Kyrgyz/Tajik family life. We played with the 2 children of 3 & 4 years and Barbara entertained them with drawing and origami. We sat in an adjoining rooms and ate noodle/ veg soup and drank many bowls of tea as the kids warmed to us. As dark fell we were ushered out of the warm room and into a separate cold building. Breakfast was taken back in the main warm house and we were served salty rice pudding, bread and butter. Their home was simple, no furniture, just mattresses, cushions and a beautiful stove that sat in between both rooms. This is no easy life at 4000metres but there was a genuine warmth to the tight knit family.
Our Pamir cycling all the way from Dushanbe to Murgab has been a highlight and one we will cherish. We head out tomorrow along a track for 100 km, of 2 days cycling and another pass of 4300m until we reach China. This border was only opened to tourists several months ago so we are hoping it will be fine. We will end part 1 of this post as there is no wifi or electricity in the town. (Written 11.10.17)
Part 2 / Into China
Our 2 day border journey was on some rough roads and taking a side track was much more comfortable. Only about 6 vehicles passed us the first day and we really felt out in the wilds. Our first night was meant to be camping but we stumbled across a large building (the only one in 90km). On closer examination it was a truck terminal and customs check for the trucks coming from China. B asked if we could put our tent up in the grounds but they said why not stay in our hotel! With only 100 Som left we covered the room price (11$) and had a warm place to stay. We started to take our cooking gear out and they said no eat in the canteen you don’t need to pay it’s on us. 4 eggs each and tea followed but really we wanted to cook our own food. Food really has become a challenge and we are both dreaming better food and to put weight on for the next stage.
The final stretch to the border was over our highest pass of 4376 metres and once we reached the top the bureaucrats took over and before we knew it we were in passport/custom office. The 2 men sat at a worn table, 2 glasses, one empty and one full of vodka. The guy with the full glass smirked with his full mouth of gold teeth ( I knew trouble was coming). He gestured open your bags for search. It was freezing outside, so we went about opening all our panniers as he remained inside smiling as his junior looked through our dirty wears! As we returned to collect our passports and exit stamps the guys continued to be small minded and made inappropriate comments about my passport photo and the state of me now! I returned pleasantries in a quick English set of sentences…!
Within minutes we were on the edge of China. We were whisked away into hi tech rooms, panniers through scanners and views of multiple cameras and screens watching! The young military and police were efficient and polite. We both looked at each other, eyes wide open and breathing different air. As we began to head off down the pass we were stopped and directed to put our bikes in a truck. We were informed we were not allowed to cycle the next 15km to customs and further passport checks. The truck driver couldn’t say no, so the 3 of us shared a breath border experience until we reached the next set of checks. Eyes even wider open we were entering a world of screens, official processes and checks. It took a further 2 hours until we had our entry stamps and send out into China! It was getting late and the hotel that appeared on maps.me was not there so we cycled along the highway and keeping an eye out for possible camping options but none came, until we found ourselves at a police checkpoint next to the glacier park. Thankfully the officer spoke English and after a while invited us in to the office and said we could sleep in a bunk room. We couldn’t believe our luck, the office was warm and outside was below 0. Between the moment of excitement and relaxation came the news from his mobile phone, ‘I’m sorry but my commander said no, you can’t stay’. Hearts sank but we packed and headed out as the kitchen lady ran after us with a big bag of food (apples, packs of milk, sweets and bread). We cycled down the hill to lower ground in the dark to pitch in a ditch next to the road and maybe 1-2km from the base of the 7500m mountain of Muztag Ata.
A cold night was had but as soon as the sun managed to scale the mountain we were warm again and soon we had a group of visitors next to the tent (Chinese from Kashgar). Many photos taken and they deposited several bags of food with us. We were enjoying this new edible land. The next 3 days of cycling along the Karakoram Highway was stunning, through gorges, along mountain vistas and lakes. We stayed one night in an unheated yurt and awoke to loud munching noises outside, which happened to be a young yak. Our first Chinese Highway was immaculate, viaducts, tunnels and smooth fast tarmac. On the third day about 60-70km from Kashgar we saw a motorcyclist pass us and within seconds we were hugging each other. it was Ashley (New Zealand) who we met and spent 2 days with on the cargo ship across the Caspian Sea! He was heading out of China into Pakistan as he was not allowed to bike without a guide/chaperone and this was very expensive ( because his bike was an import-not Chinese). Hugs goodbye we finally reached our first Chinese city of Kashgar and this is where we are now at rest. In our next blog we will summarise the police presence, the multiple checkpoints, searches and constant police and community police drills. We depart here on 21.10 for a 40hr train journey, over 3,000km to enable us to cover some ground before we start cycling south.