Pamir Highway part 2: High on a bike

It wasn’t easy to split up in Murghab after 5 months of being together for almost 24 hours every day, but it also shows how we can be a team of two individuals. Vera was having trouble with the altitude on the Pamir Highway, the kind of trouble I was afraid of back home in the lowlands. The only time I’ve been above 4.000m in South America I was struggling… a lot. So the idea of cycling a 4.655m pass was daunting to say the least. After Vera took a taxi to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, I teamed up with 2 other cyclists: The Bicycle Diaries. Tim and Jess cycled roughly the same route as us until Murghab and are also heading North into Kyrgyzstan. I just hoped I wouldn’t become a third wheel on their wagon and we left Murghab after stocking up on Snickers.

Bone shaking washboards

The first day is easy rolling and climbing. No serious passes, but also no more villages or other signs of civilization. Tim and Jess are a pleasure to cycle with; they even have their wee-stops in sync. They’re and adventurous young couple and we enjoy cycling together and sharing our breakfast. But on our second day it is time for what turns out to be the hardest 75 kilometres I’ve ever ridden. Right after our porridge it is time for the 4655m high Ak-Baital pass. The Pamir Highway is the second highest road in the world apparently. I curse my stubbornness in not fitting a triple chain ring in the front and chug along the okay road. Stopping every 100 metres or so to catch my breath, the little that is left of it. Cycling at this altitude is challenging to say the least. You get dizzy, feel like you have just outsprinted Peter Sagan, gasping for breath all the time. Fortunately the steeper bit is only a few kilometres long. We reach the top, take the pictures and only then discover that the road going down is even worse than going up. A gruelling 20K stretch of bone-shaking washboard road follows the pass and almost crushes our high spirits. Luckily the views are impressive with sweeping valleys and snow-topped peaks all around us.

Karakol

As soon as the road gets better the wind picks up, and not in our back unfortunately. The final stretch to the hamlet of Karakol seems to take forever, as the road is as straight as it is long. Almost 2 hours long we can see the houses in the distance as we fight the wind and the cold. Of course a ride like this also ends on a high. We find shelter, warmth and food at a homestay where Sadat and het husband, a former army general welcome us. Karakol is situated on the edge of one of the highest lakes in the world, created by the impact of a meteorite. We see it on a beautifully clear day, the water reflecting the snowy mountain peaks. However as it is 4 seasons in one day here we realize we are lucky. Our cycling friend Verena was here only a few days ago and couldn’t see the lake because of a snowstorm.

Feeling high with Chloe & WIll from Whalebone on a bike an Tim from Bicycle Diaries
Getting high with Chloe & WIll from Whalebone on a bike an Tim from Bicycle Diaries

Breathless

For the last two day stretch to the Kyrgyz border we decide to wait for Chloe and Will (Whalebone on a bike), Steffi and Adriano (Team BimBom) and Jean and Kati, cyclists we met in Khorog or earlier. It is quite amazing to cycle in an area this remote with people who along the way become friends. Together we climb the last passes, now and then going over the 4.000m mark, but never feeling the altitude as much as on the Ak-Baital. I do however experience the coldest night in a tent ever. Three pair of socks, two trousers, several jumpers, gloves and an Icelandic woollen hat are part of my defence against the cold. In the morning ice particles cover the inside of the inner tent. Our last push to the border treats us to more vistas of the 7.134m peak Lenin and surrounding mountains and leaves us breathless again.

 

Looking back at the peaks in the Pamirs with Jean
Looking back at the peaks in the Pamirs with Jean

Cycling this last part of the Pamir Highway really is an experience. Both Vera and I felt we made the right choice by splitting up for a week. I was happy to cycle together with all these other travellers and never felt in the way. Actually we’ve made some new friends we definitely hope to see again back home. And the best part awaits me at the end: Vera spots us riding towards Sary Tash with her binoculars and is waiting besides the road for me.

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