Descending from the Ak-Baital pass in Tajikistan
Kyrgyzstan,  Tajikistan

The Pamir Highway – Part IV

The last stretch of the Pamir Highway is as remote as it gets. Pamir cities Alitchur, Murghab and Karakol are most definitely not the reason to visit this region. We went here for the countless numbers of peaks painting the horizon. To cycle the seemingly never ending roads and challenge ourselves on one of the highest mountain passes in the world.

After a very cold night (temperatures drop to minus ten degrees celsius at night at this altitude) we wake up excited to start cycling on a real road again. Due to the arid environment, it was hard to find drinking water. When we’d almost ran out, we stopped a car to ask if they knew how far it would be to the next place to fill up. They immediately offered to fill our bottles with hot tea. That went perfect with our biscuits, and we had one of the most enjoyable cycling breaks ever at this beautiful lake.

Not a single fish in Alitchur

The next town we would pass was Alitchur. Town is a big name, it was more a collection of sad boxes where people live in. The place seemed deserted, but we found a place to fill our water bottles and a small restaurant at the end of the town. The Golden Fish, of course they didn’t offer fish. They served a pretty okay lagman (noodle soup) and microwaved but somehow still cold fries. Sabina had two plates and loved and hated it simultaneously.

Cycling to Murghab

Finding a campsite proved to be a challenge too. There wasn’t really anywhere you could find cover from the harsh wind and the passing trucks on the road. We found a literal hole in the ground, flattened the area and pitched our tent. At least we had some cover from the wind. Must’ve been quite the sight for cars and trucks passing by.

On our way to Murghab we cycled a day with a Dutch couple and we met Stefano from Italy. After having cycled alone for a while, it was a nice change to ride with others again. Stefano had bought his bike on the bazar in Samarkand and was making a documentary about his journey on the Pamir Highway. His bike broke down pretty much everyday, but he was still happy about it, since he thought it was a great way of meeting new people. Mostly bike mechanics, but still, people. 

Saving the stove

Murghab has to be one of the weirdest places we’ve ever visited. It is famous for its container markers, but they didn’t really sell anything we wanted. We were craving fresh fruits and vegetables, but they had none of that. In Murghab we stayed in one of our favorite guesthouses of the whole Pamir. Tulgabek guesthouse wasn’t luxurious, the food wasn’t too special. But the owner was amazing, and the company was good too.

We rested for a day, worked a bit on the bikes and checked what was the matter with our stove. We couldn’t seem to get a real strong flame going as usual. At first we thought it was due to the altitude, but Liam, Renata and Karl, whom we met at the guesthouse, weren’t having this problem at all. After a deep clean, the problem still arose. Karl saved us out big time and gave us his extra fuel line, which luckily solved the problem.

Six snickering cyclists

Stocked up on Snickers we set of from Murghab as a group of six. After not even one kilometer we left Stefano and Renata behind us. They would catch up with us later we figured. The road seemed endless and there was nothing in sight but mountains. Unbelievable how remote this area was.

It was a relatively easy day of cycling, with one small climb. When we’d set up camp Renata and Stefano also arrived after a while. It was freezing cold, so everyone made their dinner quickly and got in their sleeping bag early. Except for Karl and Liam. They had bought old school bright colored toasty warm ski suits and were stoked they could finally use them. They looked hilarious.

The Ak-Baital Pass

There was one pass we had marked on our map immediately when we started. The Ak-Baital pass. At 4,655 metres (15,272 ft) it is the highest point of the Pamir Highway. Everyone stops to take a photo with the sign. And cycling it is very challenging due to the altitude. There is nearly 50 percent less oxygen available, and cycling uphill with a loaded bike is already hard with all oxygen available!

Telling a joke whilst cycling uphill is the worst thing you can do. Karl and Sabina found this out the hard way, when they couldn’t breathe due to laughing. Liam didn’t seem to be bothered by the lack of oxygen at all. He just raced up the hill as if it were nothing. We think it’s because his smokers lungs are used to oxygen deprivation. So unfair.

Oxygen deficiency

Our effort cycling up was rewarded. The snowcapped peaks surrounded us and the views on the other side of the pass were even more spectacular. We too had to stop for a photo-op with the sign of course, and after that we were on our way to Karakol. It was still a stretch and the wind had picked up. The good asphalt road had also made place for that crappy washboard again. About 25 kilometers before Karakol we caved and picked a spot for our tent. Liam was in desperate need of cigarettes, so they carried on in hope of finding a shop.

Cow dung shower

It was so terribly cold that night and we were both so exhausted. The next morning when we started cycling again we had a huge fight about nothing. The breathtaking surroundings added even more drama to our feelings. For what we’ve heard, this happens to everyone. It’s not easy when it happens. Emotions run high, but afterwards we always take time to try and understand each other. And after every lovers quarrel we seem to come out stronger than before.

We reached Karakol on each others good side again. The place itself was just like Murghab and Karakol. A collection of sad white boxes functioning as houses. We found a guesthouse, which was surprisingly nice. To keep out the cold, all walls had been covered by carpets. The bucket shower was nice and hot, heated by dried cow dung. The lake was beautiful and we went out on a mission to buy some food in this ghost town. Tomato sauce and spaghetti were the most nutritious items we could find. Boy, were we craving some fresh produce by now.

The finish line in sight

After Karakol we still had a fair amount of cycling to do, but it felt like we were so close to the finish of the Pamir Highway. We had to get to to a whole new country, Kyrgyzstan. And to get there we had a few 4000+ meter passes to overcome. The landscape between the second and the third pass had to be one of the most amazing we’ve had ever seen. The mountains were brightly colored. Nothing else but peaks as far as you could see, and basically no cars or trucks to share the road with. Complete solitude, except for more cyclists we’d met along the way.

At the end of our last day in Tajikistan, the wind was brutal and unforgiving. The washboard road gave us one good last farewell to a country that had challenged us in so many ways. Facing the last climb, the Kyzylart pass, Sabina was ready to give up. We could see our fellow cyclists struggling up the hill. Even with a 46 cassette they weren’t able to cycle up but had to push instead. We were so cold, so ready to be in Kyrgyzstan, so we carried on pushing uphill.

Yak yoghurt heaven

At the top of the pass, the border police took us in to their warm office and gave us candy. There were three offices we had to pass to show exactly the same documents. Oh Asian efficiency, aren’t you a charm. From here on we were promised downhill cycling. We knew there was a guesthouse between the borders and opted for a warm bed at a hospitable family instead of another cold night in our tent.

We watched The Lion King (hello childhood memories) on a small portable tv with their kid, whilst he played with a balloon most of the time and we watched the film. The mother offered us yak kefir for desert of which we were a bit hesitant to try. Robin was brave and Sabina was forced, but it was the best yoghurt we have ever had. We poured sweet berries and jam over it and found ourselves in yak yoghurt heaven. 

Yaks in the way

Those yaks were also living with this family, right outside their doorstep. When Sabina woke up in the middle of the night and had to pee, she went outside to the pit latrine. Only to find four big yaks staring back at her when she opened the door. They were blocking the way and when those huge animals start huffing and growling at you, you don’t continue. You pee on the doorstep, and that’s just what she did.

Kyrgyzstan, a new country

Kyrgyzstan welcomed us with one of the most beautiful rides on the trip, which ended in one of the most boring ones. We descended about one thousand meters, but it was so gradual and we had a headwind once again, so it still felt like a long day. About 30 kilometers before Sary Tash the mountains disappear. It’s flat empty and boring and for the last part we had to share the road with many trucks all loaded with black coal.

A hero named Sandy

We had a rest day, and added one extra for the snow that fell. The ATM in Sary Tash had decided to not give us any cash. We didn’t have any US dollars left to exchange for Kyrgyz currency and we still had to survive for at least two days to reach Osh. And as so many times before on this trip, right when we thought we were in real trouble we were saved.

Our hero this time went by the name of Sandy. She and her lovely Australian group were staying in the same guesthouse as we were. They were on an amazing journey, traveling from Beijing to Istanbul all over land. They tried to convince us we had to come and cycle in Australia. The nature is beautiful after all, filled with amazing wild life. Like human devouring crocodiles for instance, boxing kangaroos and a wide variety of attacking birds that like to go straight to the eye. Maybe next year..

The final stretch

By the skin of our teeth we cycled three more days. Trucks kept offering us rides, but we insisted on cycling this final stretch. Two hundred kilometers, two thousand horses next to the road, and two camp spots later we had made it. We were in Ош (Osh, Kyrgyzstan). Ready to eat burgers, drink coffee, go to the super market, act like tourists at the bazar and off course get food poisoning straight away.

We did it. Round of applause.

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