The Pamir is adventure cyclists paradise. We spent a month in the beautiful landscapes of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. We cycled the legendary Ak-Baital pass (4.655 m) and followed the Panj river separating Tajikistan with Afghanistan. The northern route was rugged but beautiful and the Wakhan Corridor offered us a unique insight in Tajik culture and hospitality.
Immediately as we began cycling into Tajikistan, the mountains appeared. The agricultural landscape of Uzbekistan made place for small towns on steep hills. We had been warned about the overly enthusiastic children, greeting us right from the start. And the warnings had not been in vein.
It took us three days to reach Dushanbe and a couple hundred kids yelling high five. We had been cycling on flat lands the last months, so the mountains gave us a proper exercise. This new country also offered more interesting camp sites. We set up camp at small farms and in an apple tree orchard.
The tunnel of Death
The road leading up to Dushanbe is pretty good, and had only one truly challenging climb in it. The climb up to the Anzob tunnel is long and steep, and we cycled there during the hottest hour of the day. The tunnel is also known as the ‘tunnel of Death’, so we knew we had to hitchhike through it. It's a good thing we did, because it was pitch black for 5 km and the air was terribly polluted. Little did we know, that after the tunnel there were another 18 or so! Most of them were pretty short, but the one immediately after the big tunnel still gave Sabina the shivers.
After the tunnel, the ride to Dushanbe was a breeze. Or at least it was supposed to be, a strong headwind still had us pedaling, even going downhill. We did still manage to ride our first century (100 km) on the trip. At the Green House hostel we were greeted by so many cyclists. All of them heading to the Pamir, or just having finished.
The biggest question at Green House was ‘which route are you taking?’. There are a few options to get from Dushanbe to Osh. All of them with different difficulty levels. To start, we had to choose the northern or southern road. Northern was more challenging but had better views. The southern road was easier, but also had more traffic. After days of going back and forth we decided to go for the northern road.
Our original plan was to cycle the Wakhan corridor, a challenging route. At Green House many people told us the Bartang was even more beautiful. It’s a shortcut from Rushon to Karakol, so we would have missed out on the high plateau. We played with the idea to do both, but unfortunately never got the chance.
Start of a lifetime adventure
After a weeks rest it was finally time to start this once in a lifetime adventure. We set off together with a French father and son on their super lightweight gravel bikes. The road condition was perfect. At the end of the day, having cycled 90 km we had an awesome descent. We couldn’t find a camp spot next to the road, but a kind family had a souvenir shop and they let us sleep in it for the night. The next morning Sabina woke up with a terrible cold. Cycling downhill after sunset with sweaty clothes was probably to blame.
We decided to continue, and the road was still pretty okay. Our French friends were a lot faster than us, so they texted us with some info about the road ahead. At the crossroads of the old and new road, they warned us to take the new road. We quote ‘if you want to avoid a big argument with each other, take the new road’. They had just built the new road, and it had two huge climbs on grueling gravel. Halfway up the second climb a convoy of officials passed us, and Sabina asked them if they wanted to lighten our bicycles by taking some panniers to the top. Why not the whole bike, they offered. It was hot, it was hard, and we happily took their offer.
Red dirt road
After the drop-off the paved road made place for red colored dirt. The track took us along the edge of a beautiful green valley. We were beat at the end of the day. In a small town we tried to find a clear water stream and could see a tap at a doctors point behind a fence. A soldier saw us looking and offered to jump over the fence to fill our bottles. When we asked about his job, he smiled awkwardly and said ‘oh no, why you ask’. It was top secret. He pointed us to a family and told us to ask if we could spend the night there. We obliged and the family was happy to take us in.
Sabina was still not feeling fully recovered from that first day and the road conditions were only deteriorating. The ride to Tavildara was for us brutal, so we decided to find a hotel and recover for a bit. We got Sabina some undefinable medicine, which actually helped pretty well.
'Not for cyclists'
The road after Tavildara was similar to the previous two days. Beautiful but hard. Someone at the hotel had advised us to take a different road, because of a land slide. Later when we looked on iOverlander, we noticed that the road had been bookmarked ‘beautiful road, not for cyclist’. It was nearly impossible to cycle and we had to push our bikes up trough deep gravel and stones. At one point we were even overtaken by a guy walking, holding a pitchfork. Robins shoes didn’t survive this suffering and to be honest we ourselves barely did. After only 38 km but 1406 m elevation, we called it a day. We were rewarded with a beautiful sunset and an amazing camp spot.
After such a hard day we only wanted to get to the top of the pass. Cycling was impossible at this point due to the road conditions. The only car that passed was way too small to fit us and the bikes, but the Tajik are resourceful and after some dis- and reassembling of the bikes and the car, we had a ride to the top. On our way we passed Adrien from France and Daniel and Thea from Scandinavia whom we had met before in Dushanbe and Uzbekistan. We decided to wait for them so we could all cycle together.
Descending to Qal'ai Khumb
The descent to Qal'ai Khumb was breathtaking. Robins brakes malfunctioned, but Daniel taught us how to adjust them on the spot. We were loving the views and had a big smile plastered on our face the whole ride. It was almost a shame it had to come to an end.
In Qal'ai Khumb we could stock up on some groceries in a decent European style supermarket, and we camped a few kilometers outside the city together with Daniel and Thea. This was also where the road collided with the river separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan. A river we were to follow for the entire Wakhan corridor, giving us a peak inside the life on the Afghan side.