We stay way too long in lovely Dushanbe, but finally we leave. We are excited to be on the bike again and to start on the M41, the famous Pamir Highway. Two things are different from before: we are no longer cycling with just the two of us, and for the first time since we set off I’m having stomach problems.
Starting the M41
Together with Steffi and Adriano (aka Team BimBom), Jean and Verena we set off on the North route from Dushanbe towards Khorog. The North route is the famed M41. It has a road surface that varies between almost-ok and horrendous, doable gradients, just enough villages with food supplies and it includes conquering the 3252m Khaburabot pass. There is an alternative route as well. The South route doesn’t cross any mountains and has good road surface but it also has the most traffic. Since we haven’t cycled for more than a month and we can’t wait to get away from traffic and into the wild we pick the North route. We figure we need all the climbing training we can get before we start the steady climb from Khorog to the Pamirs proper. This is our Pamir prelude.
The first day is hard. The road out of Dushanbe is busy but with good surface. Our legs and the rest of our bodies are having a really hard time but we are excited and happy to be back on the bike again. It is difficult to keep up with the ambitions of the rest of the (much fitter) group. This creates some tension so after a few days we let them go and we are all free to ride at our own pace again. After the first day the traffic mostly disappears but the road gets much worse. Dusty gravel, loose round riverstones, or packed earth with big rocks sticking out of the surface. Despite the ongoing and ever worsening stomach trouble we keep going for 4 days, gradually climbing towards the pass. When cars come by they kick up a big cloud of dust and I start wearing a kerchief around my face to avoid breathing in the dust.
The beauty of the surrounding mountain peaks and valleys is very rewarding though, and we are glad we picked the North route. We find good camping spots and enjoy the warm days and cool nights. Riding through the villages we feel like rock stars, high fiving with all the kids who run out to meet us. They give us candy and apples. On the 5th day however my energy level suddenly drops to zero and I can no longer go on.
A ride over the Khaburabot
We decide to turn back to Qalaihusain, the last village we passed, and check our options. Stay in Qalaihusain to rest up or find a taxi to Qalaichum where there is a doctors post? Ibrohim is our (expensive) knight in shining armour. He will drive us with his fancy Jeep to Qalaichum for 100USD, which we bargain down to 50USD in the end. He doesn’t speak English and we don’t speak Russian but we manage. He takes us to his house, a beautifully maintained little farm, and we spend the night with his family. We have our own room with traditional futon mattresses on the floor, there is chai and snacks and I’m grateful for the chance to rest up. I’m in a deep sleep by 4pm.
At 5am we leave for Qalaichum. It’s a great ride and I’m sad we are missing out on cycling the Khaburabot pass. The gradients seem doable even if the road is in really bad condition. We pass the tents of Verena, Adriano and Steffi who made it to about 3000m. Ibrohim plays mesmerizing traditional Tajik music and we are only slowly waking as the sun comes up. He is a very good driver with a good car so we feel safe and secure. Apart from one incident where he chases a hare with his Jeep, zigzagging over the narrow gravel road. He laughs heartily at our shocked faces. He stops the car to check if he will have hare for dinner but he missed it. On the other side of the pass he amuses himself by chasing little flocks of small partridges over the edge of the cliff. Just before Qalaichum he drops us off. Despite a last ‘misunderstanding’ about the agreed price we are happy with Ibrohim who took very good care of us.
Qalaichum has everything we need: a hospital, a pharmacy, supermarkets and a relaxed little homestay where we check in for 2 nights. I manage to sleep almost 36 hours straight, only waking to eat a little bit and take my medication. On the other side of the river that runs through Qalaichum is Afghanistan, and just like in Armenia it feels weird to look across at a country that we only know from bad news on tv. Everything feels peaceful here, but the Pamir region is culturally quite different from Tajikistan, has separatist tendencies and we need the special GBAO (Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast) permit to travel through. We catch up with Jean, Verena, Adriano and Steffi as they pass through the village. I’m getting better fast so we will leave for Khorog tomorrow.
I remember when we said to eachother ‘now when will the real adventure start?’. Tajikistan is definitely real adventure. The highest mountains, the remotest villages, the most bureaucratic procedures. Getting sick, keep going, trust strangers to help us when we are not well. We have to show our passports to bored (but armed) soldiers at checkpoints who don’t have a clue as to where The Netherlands is. The highway is a winding dusty gravel trail with a towering cliff face on our left and a sheer drop on our right. The views are never less than breathtaking.
The women in the villages all wear traditional dress. Some girls’ hands are died orange with henna, the adults all have gold teeth and old men wear long white beards and little black square hats. We are in awe of how clean, well-groomed and dignified the people are in these remote, poor and dusty surroundings.
We are so scruffy by comparison, it’s almost embarrassing. Sometimes we have to wait for big herds of sheep and goats to pass us before we can get back on the road. The herdsman here are real cowboys on horses, with a couple of donkeys who carry their stuff and a pack of dogs to guard the herd. They wear long, thick padded velvet coats. At one lunch spot we share the shade with a young herdsman who is skyping with his buddies, showing two little squealing lambs to them with his smartphone. A funny clash of modernity with tradition.
Camping in Tajikstan is great. There is so much space around, an almost full moon, so many stars. Washing in the river. Trying to keep a hungry fox away from our supply of Snickers. For the first time we make a campfire and we sip cheap Tajik cognac to keep us warm in the cool night. It is still hot during the day, but autumn is coming fast so we enjoy the warmth while we still can.