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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Pamir prelude

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.

Team Pamir hits the M41
Team Pamir hits the M41

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.

Pamir Prelude
Pamir Prelude

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.

Ibrohims house
Ibrohims house

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.

M41 traffic jam
M41 traffic jam

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.

Tajik village ladies
Tajik village ladies

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.

Tajik cowboys
Tajik cowboys

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.