Cyril has spent the 55 hours we spent on the train from Kashgar to Chengdu really well. He updated our photo folders right up to China, has given all the photos titles, put them in the right order and edited them for maximum viewing pleasure. You can find the folders with photos of the different countries here
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Entering Europe’s poorest corner
Crossing the border into the northernmost corner of Bulgaria, the poorest area of Europe, was quite a shock after jolly Serbia. Everything we see is cracked, abandoned, broken, overgrown, dusty, peeling, missing bits, falling apart. Everywhere, even in the middle of the villages and towns we ride through, there are whole buildings left to ruin. The overall effect is that of entering a third world country. The little horse drawn carts with Roma families on board are very picturesque to our traveling eyes. They also show us grinding poverty for the first time. The people are very friendly, waving and smiling. We feel safe, despite the shocking surroundings.
The roads of Bulgaria
The roads are ok, from excellent tarmac to a more or less maintained patchwork of fixes. On some stretches we have to surf the potholes but overall we can make good speed. We decide to do some ‘work days’ as we’ve started to call them. In areas that are not particularly beautiful and with nothing to see or do we try cover as many kms as we can. Get up at 6.30am, on the bike by 8.30am, plan for lunch, finish around 6pm and try to get to the interesting bits of Bulgaria as soon as we can.
There are large areas with monoculture, only corn or not-yet-blooming sunflower fields as far as the eye can see. The long straight roads often have a single ‘wall’ of trees and shrub. This creates a tunnel vision with little variation in the landscape, if we can see it at all. Sadly this lack of diversity in farming (and aggressive spraying?) means that there are a lot less animals to be seen by the roadside. We miss the emerald blue-headed lizards, the sounds of the insects and the birds. We even start to miss the snakes, they are a bit scary but mostly very beautiful.
We stay with Annelies, a Belgian girl who owns a property near Vidin, the first town we ride through. She explains the local situation. There used to be a thriving tyre industry but after the fall of communism the machinery was quickly sold off and everybody who worked in the factories was fired. Cue economic free fall and a once bustling town surrounded by pretty vineyards now looks like a post-apocalyptic disaster zone. Empty factories and a grim outlook on the future for the inhabitants.
This is confirmed by a Dutch couple we meet later on and who are working in Vidin. Therefor first impression of Bulgaria was not a very good one, and we feel bad for the Bulgarians stuck in this situation. Hopefully new grassrootss initiatives like Annelies’ permaculture project will bring new ways of life to the area. The overnight stay was lovely. Our shower that night was a jump into a nearby dam lake, and one of her dogs kept guard next to our tent all night. Another dog ran along with us for a few kilometres to the next village. We had to send him back quite sternly before we accidentally would have adopted him.
Leaving the Danube
Yesterday things started looking up however. After one month of faithfully cycling along its banks we finally said our goodbye to our friend the Danube. We veered South, towards the Balkan mountain range. Leaving the Danube behind means entering a part of Bulgaria that is better off, with more well preserved villages and towns. For instance lovely Lovec, where we spent last night.
It also means we will start seriously climbing for the first time. This is a scary prospect with all our heavy luggage but mountains make for a welcome change of scenery. The plan is to climb up to Buzludzha, an abandoned communist headquarters that looks like a flying saucer. A Brutalist gem. It’s situated above the Shipka pass, at 1441m. We plan to camp up there and then descend to Plovdiv, the oldest continually inhabited town in Europe. From there we will take the night train to Istanbul.