the Pamir Highway part 1: Higher and higher

The Pamir Highway! Finally. We got sick of being sick and being stuck in Khorog recovering. So when we felt we were about 80% better we checked out of the hostel and started pedalling towards the high plains of the Pamirs.

To M41 or not to M41

Before we left we didn’t even know there were different ways to cross the Pamirs apart from the M41 or Pamir Highway. From around Khorog there are a few options: firstly there is the remote Bartang where you have to bring enough food to last the week or so it takes to traverse to the end. The ‘road’ is often washed away by rivers so this is one for the adventurous. The other pretty hardcore option is the Wakhan valley. This route follows the river that constitutes the Afghan border and is similarly remote and rewarding with beautiful landscapes and village life that is unspoilt by tourism. The Wakhan valley joins the Pamir Highway eventually but this involves crossing a gruelling pass with very bad roadsurface (read: push your bike uphill for two days). Since we were still not feeling 100% well we decided to do the ‘regular’ M41 Pamir Highway. This route has doable gradients and a paved surface for most of the way. It has also a pass of 4275m altitude, looong stretches of nothingness, and freezing nights at this time of year. So despite this being the least hardcore way it is no walk in the park.

The Pamir Highway

On the first day we start following the Gunt river out of Khorog. The scenery is beautiful, the river is a spectacular Celeste shade of green lined with poplars and bare mountains rise up on both sides.

Cyril cruising along the Gunt river
Cyril cruising along the Gunt river

We ride through many well maintained villages and the smooth asphalt is great. Kids run out to high-five with us, the road is lined by autumn-yellow trees, there are still shops.

Flame trees
Flame trees

Despite the immediate climbing it is a relatively nice and easy start. Our bodies have a chance to get back into the cycling rhythm without too much of a shock to the system. We set up camp in one village and get invited for chai by Sasha.

Sasha and Cyril just hangin'
Sasha and Cyril just hangin’

He is an older man, a bit drunk, and after a while the overbearing hospitality gets a bit annoying so we head to our tent. It is lovely to be camping again.

First camp after Khorog
First camp after Khorog

The second day is equally pleasant, with warm sunny weather during the day but a chilly morning when we wake up in the shade of a mountain. We have morning tea with Noushin (5 years old) and her mother.

Sweet Noushin & mum
Sweet Noushin & mum

We climb about 500m every day and at around 3400m altitude we start to feel the air get thinner. I am struggling with the altitude and a bad head cold as we come across a simple wooden cabin with a hot spring. It is ladies hour so I don’t hesitate but strip and jump right in. The Tajik girls and women who are already bathing are lovely and I emerge fully recharged from the sulphurous hot water.

The hot spring just before Jelondy
The hot spring just before Jelondy

As we get even higher the warm weather changes to chilly but bright sunny days with strong tail winds and ice cold nights. On our third night of camping, just before the 4275m Koitezek pass, we find our water has frozen during the night. Nevertheless we are very comfortable in our tent and sleeping bags and don’t feel the frost at night. The Koitezek is a bad mofo, we find out on the fourth day. The last 7km of the climb are unpaved road with some steep gradients. This might have been doable at a different altitude, but the lack of oxygen is really starting to bother us. I push the bike up most of the way, taking a small break every few minutes to catch my breath. Still, we tackle the pass. Reaching the top of the pass opens up the vista of the Pamir highlands: a wide valley with a little river, clear pools and yellowing grasslands where cattle grazes in the summer, flanked by snow capped mountains. It is very quiet and empty now, just the occaisional goat herd in the distance and a Chinese truck rumbling by every few hours. We feel very small in this gigantic landscape. 

In the middle of this huge emptiness sits one old goat farm, just over the Koitezek pass. The lady of the farm waves us down and we spend the night in the spare room. The living room is toasty because of the furnace that is blasting all day so we end the day rosy and warm while it gets well below freezing outside. Unfortunately we cannot talk because we don’t speak Russian so we spend the evening relaxing and observing farm life. Wool spinning with a stick, putting the goats who have been out on the plains in the pen behind the house, cooking, praying, watching a Turkish soap opera. Life here is hard. They spend the winter here as well, their only means of contact with the outside world an accu powered radio. There is no running water, no toilet, no electricty apart from a small solar panel which runs the soap opera and a single light bulb. The furnace burns on dried patties of goat shit as there is no wood around. If owning things is an indication of wealth they are very, very poor. In the morning they wave us off and off we go, towards the second pass. We had a bad night, suffering the 4200m altitude: pounding headaches and a wheezy short breath wake us up in the night. Nonetheless we feel very good when we set off. It is around 0 degrees, crisp and clear, and the upcoming pass is a gradual climb with mostly very good surface.

Pamir plateau
Pamir plateau

We enjoy a beautiful day on the high plains of the Pamirs, admiring the bottle green Bulunkul, Issy Kul and Sassy Kul lakes. Still, the altitude combined with my worsening cold makes it a tough day and we spend the night in another warm and comfortable homestay in the village of Alichur. From here on we venture into a region where the people are predominantly Kyrgyz.

Kyrgyz kids at the village well
Kyrgyz kids at the village well

We see men wearing the typical Kyrgyz felt hat and a couple of yurts in the distance. A lot of yurts seem to have been packed up for the winter judging by the empty round circles in the grass where they stood during the summer. 

Yurt life
Yurt life

From Alichur we make it to Murghab in two days. We spend one more night camping at an abandoned yurt spot, meaning there is a perfectly round and level area to put our tent, next to some stone little walls that offer protection from the wind while we are cooking and for our campfire.

Keeping warm
Keeping warm

Just before the sun sets we are joined by our cycling friends Tim and Jess of the bicycle diaries so we get to enjoy some good conversation by the fire. Later we find out that the place we used to make our fire was probably some sort of shrine, since Marco Polo sheep horns were incorporated into the stone walls. A single raven is cawing when we wake up in the cold morning, and we do hope we didn’t disturb any local ghosts or disrespect tradition.

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Last camp before Murghab
Last camp before Murghab

Checkpoint & endpoint: Murghab

For me the last day of the Pamir Highway is the day we roll into Murghab. One last little pass takes us around the bend of a river, and below us stretches a Wild East valley surrounded by high peaks, with grazing cows and yaks by the river, a small town of low whitewashed adobe houses in the distance, obscured by dust clouds kicked up by a sandstorm. One more police checkpoint and we are in Murghab, after 316 kilometers of beautiful, cold, high and wild emptiness. Murghab is a dusty little Kyrgyz town and offers little luxuries like a hot shower, a bazaar made out of old shipping containers and two simple restaurants. We meet up with all of our cycling friends and make a new plan: because I can no longer handle the ever worsening effects of the high altitude (worsened by the cold) we decide to split up for a few days. I take a taxi to Osh and Cyril will continue on the Highway, crossing the 4655m high Akbaital pass and the Kyzyl-Art pass that will take him into Kyrgyzstan.

We will meet up again soon in Sary Tash (Kyrgyzstan) and from there roll into China, towards the warmer weather of Southeast Asia. The whole month in Tajikistan we have been plagued by sickness and never been 100% fit, but still: I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The imposing emptiness of the highlands, uninterrupted by traffic or signposts or any other form of human intervention is something that cannot be found in Europe. The absolute darkness at night so we could see the Milky Way bright and clear. The people who gave us so much even if they have so little. The Pamirs for us were a cold and hard place to be, but incredibly bright and crystal clear too.

Tadsickistan

A tad sick is an understatement. In the last post I was quite optimistic about getting back into good health and on the bicycle again, but we are both still ill and weak. I have been sick now for more than two weeks, and Cyril has been under the weather since the last two days. Luckily today we got a sound diagnosis, a bag full of medication, and it looks like we should be recovering fast.

Getting intravenous fluids in Qalaikhun
Getting intravenous fluids in Qalaikhun

We are currently in Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakshan region. After a few days of being pretty miserable and not getting any better in Qalaikhum we took a 6 hour taxi ride to Khorog. We were hoping we would meet some of our cycling friends again at the Pamir Lodge and have a better hospital at our disposal. Both of it worked out: we saw our Dushanbe cycling buddies again and we also met up with Gerrit, whose blog we read before we left. As always it’s great to meet someone who has been an online inspiration on the road.

Cyril tinkering with our cycling buddies
Cyril tinkering with our cycling buddies

Health

Tajikistan is not only famous amongst cyclists for the Pamirs, but also for it’s travelers diarrhea. So when we got it as soon as we landed in Dushanbe we shrugged our shoulders and got on with things, thinking ‘bad food’ and that it would pass. Until it didn’t. The hospital in Qalaikhun never ran any tests but nevertheless prescribed me antibiotics with severe side effects such as sun allergy and tearing tendons. Not great for a cyclist! I didn’t take them but soldiered on with probiotic pills, oral rehydration salts (ORS) and zinc supplements, hoping I could fight off whatever it was that caused it. I’ve been too weak to ride (or do anything but sleep or hang around really). There have been some days with fever and pains but mostly it’s not even been all that uncomfortable, just really annoying.

Diagnosis

So yesterday we went to the hospital of Khorog, and finally we had a stool test done, with immediate result: we are both hosting parasites. Amoebae and Ascariasis to be precise. It was quite a shock to get this disgusting diagnosis. Tip no. 1: don’t EVER google image search your parasites, it cannot be unseen. Apart from being disgusted we are at the same time greatly relieved to have found the cause and the treatment. Two weeks of guessing and trial-and-error treatment was getting me down a bit and now we can look forward to feeling good again. Anti-parasite and antibiotics should be able to kill our horrible hitch-hikers within a day or two. Turns out the Qalaikhun hospital diagnosis of a bacterial infection was all wrong and I’m glad I didn’t take their prescribed meds.

Tips for travelers

What we will do differently next time: firstly, we will definitely keep taking all the usual precautions to stay healthy. Clean all the water we drink with our Steripen (or a similarly low-hassle water cleaning method), even though many people claim you can drink straight from the streams and sources. You never know if animals have been using the same water. Peel fruit. Avoid meat, watermelon,  soft ice, and salads. Cook our own meals as much as possible. Wash our hands with water and soap (not easy to find in Tajik toilets). Secondly, should we ever feel ill again, get tested right away. It’s simple, cheap, and it avoids so many days wasted because you don’t have any energy. In these kind of countries it’s best to assume the worst. Thirdly, ask our GP to prescribe anti-parasite drugs for giardia, amoebae and worms to bring along on the trip. We brought antibiotics for bacterial gut infections but not for parasites and judging by the stories of all the cyclists we’ve met here it’s very common. Most cyclists get parasites at some point. And finally, use some easy to find local natural remedies for prevention and treatment. Eat raw crushed garlic cloves three times a day for anti-parasitic and antibacterial properties, eat kefir for probiotic strengthening of the gut and immune system. Luckily we like both but we’re going to be stinking to high heavens for the next few weeks.

Aga Khan

We noticed some modest but exceptionally neat and tidy doctors posts in regional villages. Instead of bearing yet another huge banner with a badly photoshopped picture of president Rahmon they bear an inconspicuous plaque of the Aga Khan foundation. Our doctor yesterday also directed us to the local Aga Khan founded pharmacy. I read up a little bit about what the Aga Khan foundation is and does and it really is quite remarkable. As I wrote before, the Pamiri people are culturally different from the Tajik people. They are shi’ite as compared to the sunni majority of the country. Their branch of shia islam is called Ismailism, and the Aga Khan is their spiritual leader. Apart from this he is also a major philantropist, donating 600 million dollars every year to the worldwide Ismailite society, focusing on health, education, business development and womens rights. The benefits of these programs definitely show in the Pamirs: more people speak English, less women wear headscarves, there are some good health facilities. The Aga Khan was born in Switzerland, currently lives in France, and comes from an old world glamourous noble Iranian family. His father was briefly married to Rita Hayworth and missed out on becoming Aga Khan because his own father thought him too much of a playboy and passed on the title (and responsibilities) to his grandson instead. We think he practices great vision and leadership, and his good work will be a positive and lasting legacy.

Thank you

All our well-wishers, friends, family and followers, who sent us sweet messages in the last couple of weeks. Thank you all, we are so grateful for your love and support.

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Asalom Tojikiston

The Tajiks speak a form of Farsi but it sounds a bit different from what we heard in Iran: Tajikistan becomes Tojikiston. Another difference from the Iranian Farsi is the fact that they use the cyrillic script, which is nice because now we can read the street signs. Russian is widely spoken but outside Dushanbe there are many local dialects.

When we were thinking or dreaming about Tajikistan we would always imagine the Pamirs, our skin crawling with fear and excitement. Pictures on blogs and instagram accounts of other cyclists showed desolate mountain peaks in crystal clear thin air, cyclists camping on endless high plains of barren earth, villagers in remote valleys. The Pamir Highway is not really a highway. It is a potholed gravel road which runs from Khorog on the Tajik-Afghan border to Osh in Kyrgystan, scaling several passes and reaching 4562m at its highest point on the Pamir plateau. It is the second highest road in the world, after the Karakoram Highway which runs from China into Northern Pakistan (not an option at the moment due to political unrest and kidnappings). I had never heard of the Pamir highway until we hosted Taneli through Warmshowers, and he put the idea of cycling this route East into our head.

Dushanbe

I don’t think we ever thought of Tajikstans capital Dushanbe when were dreaming about the Pamirs. That is, any thoughts beyond the need to do our food shopping and some other practical errands there before heading into the Pamirs. As we have found out before, discovering a place that we had zero expectations about is a really nice experience. The weather is lovely, warm and sunny during the day and cool at night but not yet cold. There are shops and bazaars that sell everything we could possibly need. There is beer! Very nice after our dry month in Iran. Dushanbe is small for a capital city and not too busy traffic-wise, with wide tree-lined avenues. The main drag Rudaki Avenue is lined with pretty and mostly well-maintained buildings, an eclectic mix of Asian, Soviet and Muslim influences. An airy open summer chaykhana (teahouse) overlooking a Persian style garden with a small pond in the middle, with a colourful cassette ceiling and almost muqarna-like capitals topping the high pillars. A modernist Soviet theatre that wouldn’t be out of place on Berlins Karl Marx Allee. A few Brutalist Soviet housing blocks, small enough to be actually quite charming. There is a cluster of neo-classicist university buildings plastered in the most brilliant shade of swimming pool blue with white hammer and sickle reliefs. There are also modern buildings going up, but fortunately they are well proportioned, not too outrageously kitsch and even despite the use of the ubiquitous horrible dark blue glass not too much of an eyesore. Because of the upcoming 25th indepence day celebrations there are Tajik flags and banners everywhere, depicting president Rahmon who appears to be (somewhat constipatedly) contemplating grain fields, stroking kids’ heads, inspecting the industry… you get the picture.

The Tajik people look decidedly different from the Iranians. Finer and slightly more Asian features, slender people with thick black or dark brown hair. The man mostly sport lego style bowl cuts, the women have long hair. Some still have uni-brows, once considered a sign of beauty. The school boys wear smart black trousers and slim black ties on pristine white shirts (prohibited in Iran!). Many women wear traditional garb: loose trousers, tight at the ankles, under a long loose tunic in the same fabric, with short puffy sleeves. The womens garments have very colourful prints, either in traditional ikat weaving or new synthetic designs embroidered with little pearls. They wear equally colourful headscarves tied around their hair but leaving the neck free. To me they look more decorative than restricting. We meet up with our friends Steven and Saule from Caravanistan, and from Saule I understand that not long ago modern Western dress was more prevalent on the streets of Dushanbe. But as many educated people leave the country more traditional (village) people are left to dominate the dresscode in the city. Traditional dress is further encouraged by the government in an effort to forge a strong and clear national Tajik identity. Not an easy task in such an ethnically mixed country and I don’t really like the idea of an imposed reactionary traditionalist nationalist dresscode. However I do like the clothes, so I have a set made by a tailor in the bazar.

Tajik ladies in traditional atlas garb
Tajik ladies in traditional atlas garb

One of the people of Dushanbe is Vero, a French woman who works for the EU. She has a wonderful house, surrounded by a large walled garden. We arrive here after dark, emotionally and physically exhausted after a long an stressful day. Completely drained from the effort to get our enormous pile of luggage from Tehran to Tajikistan. We did make it, but not without the generous help of two cycling Iranian brothers and the lovely staff of Tajik Air. When Vero’s night guard opens the gate for us we think we have arrived in cyclist heaven. A small collection of rose bushes and fruit trees on a grass field, a hammock, a house with a kitchen and bathroom generously offered to the cyclists who are welcome to camp in the garden. There are some Koreans, a Catalan couple and two French guys who show us around. Two turtles and a speaking parrot live in the garden. In the next few days we share beers and nerdy bike travel conversation with more cyclists who arrive. Some have done the Pamirs already and they give us useful tips about hot springs and road conditions. Verena and Jean we have met before, Steffi and Adriano are a Swiss couple we meet a day later, and we make plans to cycle the Pamirs together. Crossing the high peaks we have dreamed about for so long seem a little bit less scary at the prospect of doing them together with friends.

Independence day

We end up spending almost a week in Dushanbe. Not because we have things to do, but because we want to see the parades for the 25th independence day celebrations. The parade is a deception. No one knows when it will happen and in the end it transpires there are two parades; one military and one civilian. Rumours abound: the parade is delayed because Putin couldn’t make it on the actual indepence date! Putin never shows up, we would have known if he had as the presidents dacha is around the corner from our ‘home’ and there are no snipers on the roof. We find out when the parades are on because they are shown live on tv. We rush out to try and catch the second parade after we miss out on the 7am military parade. We miss the civilian as well and see its tail end disappear into the distance of Rudaki avenue. Later we find out that we wouldn’t have been able to get close to the parade despite several security checks we passed. Only a small number of vetted Tajik loyal supporters of the president got a certificate that allowed them to line the route of the parade. The whole operation (16.000 soldiers, 25.000 civilians) is put on to please president Rahmon and to look good on tv, and not an actual celebration for the people of Dushanbe. In fact, the involuntary participants of the parade have to fork out quite a bit of their own money to pay for their compulsory costumes.

 

Soviet spa

After having missed out on the chance of seeing a totalitarian dictator display his charade we go on an interesting excursion. Khodja obi Garm is a former Soviet sanatorium some 50km North of Dushanbe, in use since 1935. The spa is a stunning Brutalist complex nestled in a gorge almost 2000m above sea level. The spring waters are hot and naturally suffused with the radioactive radon gas. This is supposedly curative, but radon is in fact poisonous in large doses and a fairly common health risk as it is everywhere around us. We go with our new Swiss friends and check in. First we get served lunch in a big communal dining hall by traditionally dressed Tajik women. Veggie soup with lots of fat floating on top, dumplings in sour cream, even the menu here is vintage. I then start with a rough Russian massage. Kneading, slapping, knuckle grinding, scalp scratching, hair pulling and some really good vertebrae cracking. Then, into the hot radon pool.

Cyclists by the pool
Cyclists by the pool

It is quiet in the resort so we have the pool to ourselves, apart from Moheddin. He is a jolly Pamiri mountain man who used to sail the big seas and proudly shows us his sailor tattoo. The treatments are very relaxing and in the afternoon we get lulled to sleep by president Rahmon who on tv, endlessly droning on in front of an audience that manages to stay awake.

Rahmon the Jowly One
Rahmon the Jowly One

We are greatly enjoying ourselves in the sanatorium, especially when we discover a basement bar with beer and a pingpong table. After a good nights sleep in the spartan little room and a simple breakfast of baby porridge, bread and tea we do one more treatment. Steffi and I pick the ‘tsirkulyarniy dush’. This is a circular shower contraption spouting needle sharp jets of water from all around and apparently good for the circulation. As a bonus there is a chair with a hole in the middle and a jet underneath, so all our bits get the circulatory treatment. Cyril and Adriano disappear into another room and get to torture eachother with a superstrong jet stream, managed with a cool looking 60’s control panel. According to Cyril it’s the weirdest thing he has ever done with another guy. There are more interesting looking rooms where for instance you can have your head pulled back by a torturous looking helmet and leather strap contraption, but we have to head back to Dushanbe. I can definitely recommend this place to cyclists who come back from the Pamirs and need some regeneration.

Dushanbe, a small capital city of a small and remote country. What a nice surprise.