Category Archives: Tajikistan

Pamir Highway, Part 3 (Final) – Murghab to Osh, Kyrgyzstan

***For Pamir Highway summary, skip to the end of this post.

8/5 Murghab -> cow-smelling abandoned building before Ak-Baital Pass

P1020646the bazaar in Murghab–a collection of converted containers

The evening before when I entered Murghab village, I decided to spend the night here because I still had a shortness of breath, and it seemed worse now that I developed a bad cough. I just hoped that the altitude wouldn’t make my body any worse.

As I was walking through town looking for a place to stay in Murghab, I happened upon two older women (50 years old?) on the street. They were headed to the village bathhouse and they asked if I would like to join them. I did.

It seemed that most homes in Tajikistan didn’t have showers or baths; they only had toilets. If they want to take a bath, they must go to the bathhouse. This bathhouse in Murghab was different from the hot spring bathhouse in Zong. This one had A SAUNA. I didn’t even know that saunas existed in Tajikistan; seemed too luxury. But there it was!

The bathhouse also seemed to be a social space for local women. While we bathed, the older of the two women  I met on the street started chatting and asking about my life and my trip. The older one spoke very good English. She spent 25 years as an English teacher in Murghab. Now she is a customs officer at the Chinese border. The younger woman was also a customs officer. The two were sisters.

After bathing, the two invited me to their home. I spent the night talking to the younger woman’s kids, who were teenagers. They had some trouble with English, but they welcomed the chance to practice.

P1020644the younger woman gave me this drink to try. apparently, its just tea and sugar, left to ferment. it tasted very good — like a slightly fizzy juice–and was not alcoholic.

P1020645drinking from the well in Murghab

In the morning after breakfast, I bade goodbye to the two sisters and headed off. I still didn’t feel great, so I took the day extremely slow. I still had the cough and short breath, and this time my stomach had a little indigestion, and my lips had a few blisters from sunburn. Throughout the afternoon, I put up my tarp (to protect against the strong sun) and took 1-2 hour breaks. Since there was little I could do under my small tarp, I whipped out my Russian books and started studying Russian. Still productive!

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Despite slow-goings, I managed to make it 20 km before Ak-Baital Pass — the highest and most difficult pass of the Pamirs. By the end of the day, the wind had picked up to a very strong headwind, so I called it an earlier night than usual when I found this abandoned building where I could hide from the wind. Only downside was it smelled mildly of cow-poop.

P1020651

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8/6 Ak-Baital Pass (highest point@ 4655m) -> the shores of Lake Kara-Kul

I left early in the morning at 6am to try and beat the afternoon headwinds. The last several days had a general pattern that mornings were calm, and then around 3-4pm the winds would pick up, and they were always headwinds. Not nice! Especially if you’re tackling the highest pass on the entire Pamir Highway.

P1020657P1020659on the way to Ak-Baital Pass, the road passes right along the Chinese border. Although the actual border is 1-2 km away on top of the mountains, the border posts are right next to the road for convenience sake. Sometimes, there were gaps in the border fence. *gasp* someone escaped!

P1020665Ak-Baital Pass @ 4655 m (15,300ft). Ak-Baital means “White Horse” in Kyrgyz

At the base of the pass, there was a nice sign (one of the only signs in Central Asia I’ve seen) for Ak-Baital. I was feeling pretty happy at that moment (see picture)…

Then the uphill started. It was SO INCREDIBLY STEEP. I don’t know how much grade it was, but I knew just by looking at it that I could not bike it. I had to push my bike. So I started pushing. But there was a severe lack of oxygen. Every 10 steps, I had to rest 2 minutes, wheezing the entire time. I set targets for myself: “Just get to the next road marker. You can do it! *wheez wheez wheez* Try to look at the beautiful mountains! *wheez wheez*”

P1020666on the way to the top of Ak-Baital

Eventually it took me 2 hours to push my bike from the bottom to the top. I didn’t see anyone the entire time–no cars, no trucks, no cyclists–just me and the mountains.

Then, about 20 m before the top (I could see the blue sky on the other side!), two jeeps came up the road. As they passed, I saw inside the jeeps were a large group of Asian tourists taking pictures and videotaping. Several minutes later, I looked up and saw one woman walking towards me: “Ni shi zhongguoren ma? Are you Chinese?” I said yes and we started chatting while she helped me push my bike the last few meters.

They were a group from Fudan University in Shanghai and several of them were my age. It was so incredibly beautiful to get to the top of the pass and to celebrate with so many people. We didn’t have drinks or anything to eat–just their company was enough to fill me with giddiness and elation. (If the Fudan University group is reading this, THANK YOU for celebrating the top of the pass with me!!)

Also, THANK YOU MOM AND DAD for forcing me to learn Chinese from a young age–it has given me so many opportunities to connect with people all over the world on this trip, even in the seemingly most remote places!

After chatting for awhile, they continued on and I was left to soak in the amazing feeling of being on top of the world.

P1020676P1020679On the way down from Ak-Baital Pass

From here, my guidebook said it was 77km of downhill, so I thought it would be a piece of cake. Turns out, it was not as simple. The road was very rough, very bumpy, and very slow. It’s times like these, though, that teach you patience. Yes, the road was rough, and I was feeling tired and sick and lacking oxygen. But never before have I seen mountains like these, with no one around, and not a sound in the air.

After awhile, I stopped to cook myself a nice meal. I realized that in trying to get over the pass, I hadn’t eaten a proper meal since 18 hours ago. While cooking, I was admiring the utter remoteness of the place, until an unexpected visitor appeared out of nowhere. It was a teenage Kyrgyz boy on a donkey. Where did you come from??? I couldn’t see anything besides mountains for miles and miles.

The Kyrgyz boy was eager to have a conversation with me, despite my “chut chut” Russian. He explained that he lived in a yurt with his sister and parents a few kilometers down the road. They normally live in Karakul village, but in the summers, they are way up here herding sheep and cow. He continued to tell me that he just finished high school, and that he was going to university in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan starting September. I was impressed (and happy to hear) that though he is living in Tajikistan, he still has the opportunity to go to university in Kyrgyzstan. It was also remarkable to me to imagine this teenage boy, who is way out here now in the mountains herding sheep, will go to the big city soon and attend university. Seems like two different worlds that would never cross. But I guess for this boy, it doesn’t seem so strange.

Finally I got back onto nice road, approaching the dazzling, mystical lake of Lake KaraKul. I set up camp somewhere on the shores of the lake but I didn’t sleep well all night because of my cough. When I couldn’t fall asleep though, I marvelled at the incredible clear night sky full of stars.

P1020690P1020692the shores of Lake Karakul

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8/7 Kara-Kul -> camp with Moshii @ 10 km before Kyrgyz border

In the morning, I arrived at a police checkpoint and was stopped by barbed wire and this STOP barrier.

P1020699STOP hammertime! at military checkpoint

With MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”  playing in my head, I walked up to the barbed wire gate. Everything was eerily silent at 8am. I called out “Tourist!” No response. “Tourist!” A voice grumbles. A soldier pokes his head out of the tent and beckons me inside. The space was damp, dark, and musty with only a small kerosene lamp providing a glimpse of life. I could imagine the harsh living conditions of army barracks.

There was another soldier still sleeping in bed. He was the soldier in charge. He was shirtless but had a blanket cover. While still in bed, he checked my passport, asked me the standard questions of my purpose of travel, and filled out his registration book. After he finished he bid me “Udachi! Good luck!” and rolled over to sleep again. “Sleep well!” I said.

Indeed. Hammertime!

P1020700Karakul village playground. Lake Karakul behind.

In Karakul, I found breakfast at one of the guesthouses. Breakfast was fried eggs, bread and apricot jam, and chai. I was very excited about the fried eggs. Normally at home, I don’t often eat eggs for breakfast, but here in Central Asia I crave them. PROTEIN. Other travellers staying at the guesthouse were also having breakfast, so we had a nice chat together.

P1020702Other travellers at the guesthouse in Karakul

P1020709P1020715360 degrees panoramic views of snow-capped mountains, turqoise blue Lake Karakul, and green plains

Back on the road, I met a few other groups of travellers. One was a Swiss-Malawi couple traveling in a giant RV camper from Switzerland around Central Asia. Another was an older German couple on bikes.

After some flat I headed uphill to the border with Kyrgyzstan 50 km away. As I was riding on a steep uphill, PING. Oh no! Another BROKEN SPOKE!

P1020734Broken spoke #2 on the Pamir Highway

Again, the broken spoke was on the non-cassette side. While sitting by the side of the road replacing the spoke, I heard a familiar voice. Looking up, I was greeted by Moshii. Moshii! I was sure he was somewhere in front of me and that I wouldn’t see him again. Turns out he spent 2 nights in Murgab. We joked that Moshii would show up every time I broke a spoke.

Since this was my second broken spoke, I started worrying about whether my bike would survive the rest of the journey. I didn’t have any more replacement spokes. Moshii reassured me that one broken spoke wasn’t going to make much of a difference. If the wheel is strong, it’s meant to handle a lot more. As we set up camp, he continued to tell me of all the wheels he’s destroyed on previous bike trips–across the Great Divide and in South America. His stories eased my fears and I was convinced my bike was going to be OK. I just needed to buy some extra spokes in the next city.

P1020735P1020737biking/camping with Moshii again

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8/8 10 km before Kyrgyz border -> camp with Moshii @ Sary-Tash, Kyrgystan

Next morning, Moshii and I followed our own schedules again. Couple kilometers down the road, I met an organized tour group of cyclists. They were nice and let me have breakfast with them at their camp. They were also headed to Kyrgyzstan and Osh.

P1020739P1020741To the Kyrgyz border and beyond! The snowcapped mountains on the right are in China.

The Tajikistan border post was just before the top of the mountain pass. The Kyrgyzstan border post would another 20km after the pass. To get there would be a crazy-insane-rumbling downhill on gravel road.

P1020750Hello Kyrgyzstan! Top of Kyzl-Art Pass, the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgystan.

P1020752P1020753Kyrgyzstan is GREEN

P1020755P1020756On the downhill, there was a gigantic mudslide that completely blocked the road. Trucks and cars were parked on both sides, unable to pass. Here trying to cross is the organized bike tour group and an Israeli motorcyclist.

P1020765P1020767Looking back at the Pamirs and Tajikistan

P1020768P1020773Onto the plains before Sary-Tash. Organized bike tour group has lunch. Two strange domes that seemed to be someone’s house or animal stable.

P1020774P1020775Sary-Tash village

By the time I got to Sary-Tash village, it was 3.30pm. I had been fighting a strong headwind for several hours and was waiting until Sary-Tash to have lunch.

P1020777Really hungry by the time I got to Sary-Tash. Lunch-dinner at a restaurant. This is manti–steamed dumplings filled with meat and onion. Good, but I still prefer Xiaolongbao.

After lunch-dinner, Moshii found me again by the side of the road and we decided to find camp together.

P1020780Chinese construction camp. I love the little shack that says “Shang dian/ Magazin” which means “shop” in Chinese and Russian, respectively.

P1020781camp with Moshii just after Sary-Tash

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8/9 Sary-Tash -> camp with Moshii @ after Gulcha

The next day started off with a huge climb up another mountain pass. Not just a regular mountain pass, but a DOUBLE pass. You climb up one, then descend 100m, then have to climb back up even higher. Boo.

Good news was after the pass was pretty much downhill all the way to Osh. A day and a half of downhill! Like.

P1020782yakety-yak!

P1020784Chinese construction crews on the way up the mountain pass. Many of the workers didn’t look Han Chinese, but rather Uyghur or Kyrgyz.

P1020785Uphill, again, for a double-peak mountain pass. Kyryz yurts in the valley.

P1020787Finally! Big serpentine downhill!

P1020788P1020791Kyrgyz villages. Also, painted lines and asphalt roads!!

P1020792P1020794colorful valley with cool rocks. The valley kept changing colors too. There was a strong headwind, but the downhill overpowered it.

P1020797beshbarmak for lunch. meat with noodles.

That evening, when I was walking around a river looking for a campsite, I saw something move between the trees. It was Moshii again! Peek a boo! Moshii had already set up camp. It was funny that Moshii and I unexpectedly found each other for the last 4 days in a row.

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8/10 Gulcha -> Osh

When I said it was downhill all the way to Osh, it was actually not true. There was one more mountain pass this day. Nothing like thinking you’re at the top of the pass, when suddenly the valley opens up and you see a wall in front of you with switchbacks.

You can tell how tired I was when I got to Osh by the lack of photos.

P1020800pilmen for lunch. dumpling soup.

P1020801P1020802riding into Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Official end of the Pamir Highway.

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Pamir Highway Summary:

– two broken spokes

– not much proper food. in the shops, everything (i mean everything) was expired including snickers bars, pasta, juice, and instant noodles.

– a nasty cough + mentally and physically drained to the limit. the Wakhan valley route was definitely a lot rougher and tougher than the alternative Gunt Valley route.

– BUT take a look at this elevation chart. Really really really proud I made it! And that makes all the difference!!!

Pamir Highway, Part 2 – Khorog to Murgab

7/29 Khorog -> Khughursh

The next morning, Johannes parted ways because he wanted to get to Kyrgyzstan early to meet up with a friend. I spent most of the day in Khorog just resting and washing clothes (very therapeutic!), taking a breather before the next, more difficult leg of the Pamirs. Khorog is the main hub for travellers in the Pamirs so it’s a good place to hang out and meet other travellers to get information and share stories. Since I’m travelling alone most of the time, it feels really good to end up at a hostel where you have a community of other travellers. There’s nothing more rejuvenating than feeling like you have a family, no matter how temporary the family is. I knew the next 2 weeks of riding were going to be tough, so I wanted to soak in as much emotional support as I needed.

From Khorog, there were two routes across the Pamirs. Since I’m usually up for a challenge, I decided to take the road along the longer, rougher, but more scenic Wakhan Valley. Was it a good idea in the end? Read on…

I left Khorog at the comfortable time of 4pm and headed toward Ishkashim.

P1020434P1020435beautiful Pamiri women working in the fields. The Pamiris looked much more European than other parts of Central Asia.

As it was getting dark, I started looking for a place to stay. But the villages were quite close together and I couldn’t find a place to camp. Finally at dark, I was about to throw my tarp down and sleep in a ditch, when I saw a weirdly shaped shadow approaching. It turned out to be just a farmer carrying a hoe and wearing a cowboy hat. (He was also wearing a Hulk Hogan shirt..really wish I took a picture of him.) When he found out I didn’t have a place to stay, he invited me home which was only 10 minutes walk away. His wife and daughter were home. His daughter was busy taking care of her baby while his wife prepared a bowl of soup (with some pasta inside) for me. Over dinner, the farmer and his wife sat with me and we had a nice long conversation in Russian. They were very social so it was easy to have a conversation with them. They were eager to learn about my background and asked lots of questions about my life and my trip. Though my Russian is still limited, I was surprised at how much I understood:

The farmer speaks fluent Russian because he used to work in the Soviet army, mostly in Kiev, Ukraine. Now he’s old and can’t work abroad, so now it’s his son who is working in Russia to send home money. They have 2 other daughters besides the one at home, and they are married and live elsewhere. His wife was originally from the Shugnan region (the region before Khorog).

After dinner, I slept the night away on a turpan (traditional mattress) in the living room and it was the most comfortable sleep I’ve had in awhile.

P1020437P1020439Home of farmer with cowboy hat and Hulk Hogan shirt

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7/30 Khughursh -> Ishkashim –> Dasht

The next morning I had non (bread) and chai with the family before heading off. I was headed that day to Ishkashim– one of the main villages in the Pamirs. It’s where the main border crossing to Afghanistan is and on Saturdays there’s an epic market with Afghan and Tajik traders on an island in the middle of the Pyanj River. Unfortunately, I arrived on a Monday so I will have to wait till another day for Afghan carpets, skullcaps, and other goodies.

P1020441road conditions alternated between semi-paved asphalt, plain dirt, and very rough gravel.

P1020449kids herding livestock along the Pyanj River. the girls were wearing clothes fit for going out in the city.

P1020454P1020455a windstorm blew through in the afternoon, sending sand and dirt everywhere. but the locals just kept going through it all.

P1020459near Ishkashim there were these yellow-green plants everywhere and local women were harvesting them. didn’t stop to ask them what they were for though.

In the winter time, parts of the Pyanj freeze over and people from the Tajik and Afghan sides move freely across. Apparently kids from the Tajik and Afghan sides play ice hockey against each other too! It’s wonderful to imagine lands without borders! Also for MITOC folks, what about Winter School Ice Hockey trip here? ;)

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7/31 Dasht -> Zumudg

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In mid-morning, I stopped next to a plain-looking building for a break. After awhile, two guys walked out of the building in blue jumper suits and started talking to me. Turns out the guys were technicians and I was at the office for Pamir Energy, the local electric utility. (In Tajikistan, I can never tell the difference between homes, shops, or offices. They all look like the same mud-brick buildings!) The guys were really nice and we shared tea, non, and a whole bucket of apricots (the courtyard was an apricot tree grove). They also offered a place to take a shower/bath. It looked like this:

P1020467you can tell the hot water from the cold water, by the wire going into the hot one.

P1020534Err…where are my water bottles? Oh crap! I left them in Ishkashim. When I filled up my water bottles, I left them by the side of the road! Oh well, guess I’ll just have to make do with a normal plastic bottle.

P1020466staring at the Hindu Kush, bringing to life the famous mountains of mounteering books. Incredible to see 7000m peaks for the first time in my life!

P1020475Some kilometers later, a young lady and her mother invited me into their Pamiri home. They fed me shir chai (salty milk tea with bread). The young lady was in her 3rd year of university in Dushanbe. Her English wasn’t that good, but she was still good company.

P1020479

After another late afternoon windstorm, I was quite tired. But Pamiri hospitality granted me another night with a local family in the village of Zumudg. An old man who was waiting for a minibus on the main road turned out to be the Russian teacher for several schools in the area. He introduced me to one of his students, Khayolbegim, who worked at the village shop, and said she would take care of me for the night.

P1020483P1020482Khayolbegim with her mother and little brother in their family-run shop. Her father somehow broke his hand and was away in the hospital in Khorog.

P1020481Her mom fried up some potatoes with a bit of egg and topped with a huge pile of dill/cilantro/spring onions. It seemed like this was the only thing they had to eat besides bread and chai.

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8/1 Zumudg -> Ratm

P1020472P1020485

The next day, I past the village of Vrang, which my guidebook said had an interesting Buddhist stupa and hermit caves. I’m not one for visiting tourist destinations with other tourists though, so instead I decided to befriend a few locals and hike a nearby hill where you can see the stupa and hermit caves.

P1020496ooo, Buddhist stupa and hermit caves. Pretty cool!

P1020493Befriended these two girls in Vrang who hiked up the hill with me. Yes, they were a little confused why I wanted to hike up the hill but they were really great–they couldn’t stop laughing and smiling the whole time even though they spoke little English or Russian.

P1020499After our short hike, they insisted that I go to their home for chai. Before I could refuse, they took my bike.

P1020500P1020507At their home, I met this cute little girl who was cripple. The family had adopted her somehow (perhaps as an orphan)

P1020509After a meal of chai, shir chai, and watermelon, the girls (and their brothers) put on some Russian music and started a dance party in the middle of the day!

The girls wanted me to stay the night, but I still had a long way to go, and I was afraid if I didn’t keep moving, my Tajik visa would run out. So I declined politely.

 

P1020513A local village shop in Vrang. So impressed at how Central Asians can manage to transform any sort of container into a home or shop.

P1020517

P1020520kids here like volleyball. you can see makeshift volleyball nets everywhere.

In the Pamirs, the locals built bathhouses where there are hot springs. Most of them cost only 1 somoni (20 cents). Naturally, I could not go through the Pamirs without experiencing a local bathhouse with local women. Some locals said different hot springs have different healing properties but some said they were all the same.

P1020523P1020524Hot spring bathhouse in Zong village. Men on one side, women on the other. Nice way to end the late afternoon.

P1020525

That evening I made the rough climb out of the Pyanj River valley and was hoping to find a restaurant for dinner to reward my efforts. My map said there was one in the village of Ratm, but when I arrived, there was nothing except a few houses. Oh well. I ended up sleeping inside a home (the family didn’t allow me to put up a tent) with shir chai for dinner. Really made me realize though that there is not much food in the Pamirs, and I wonder how people survive through the winter.

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8/2 Ratm -> camp before Khargush

In the morning after breakfast, we were greeted with an unpleasant surprise. In front of the house were a group of 15 military guys in uniform. They had saw my bike parked outside of the house (on the main road) and started asking questions. The family and neighbors assured the military guys: “Tourist. Just a tourist!”

“Document pazhaloostah. Documents, please.” I handed them my passport. They asked why there were lines across my passport picture. I explained in broken Russian that this was a security feature and it is the way an American passport looks. From their facial expressions they didn’t seem entirely convinced, but they didn’t press on. They gave me back my passport and continued walking up the road.

I was still worried though. Ratm was the last village for 100 km. I was biking alone and they were 15 guys. The road was also going up some steep uphills with very rough gravel, which means I would be biking perhaps slower than their walking (or not even biking at all but pushing my bike through the rough bits). In the end, I decided to stop thinking about bad situations and just focus on the road. If anything were really to happen (like they chased me on foot or something), I could always just bike back to Ratm (downhill) really fast.

The rest of the day turned out to be rather quiet, but extremely tough because of unpaved/sandy/gravelly roads and steep uphills. Many times I did not have the strength to bike the uphills, so I just pushed the bike up. Despite the hard road, the surroundings were beautiful and incredibly peaceful. The Pamir River valley was lush green and in some parts so narrow that I could literally spit into Afghanistan. The only other people I saw the entire day were a small group of herders and  two cars –one passenger car, and one military car. The military car passed me late in the day and were carrying the soldiers from the morning. They stopped to give me a lift but I insisted that I wanted to cycle because it was part of my travels. People in these parts of the world really can’t understand why you would cycle (especially on such a bad road) if you could use a car.

P1020526more of the Hindu Kush

P1020527P1020536transition from the Pyanj River to the Pamir River. The other side of the Pamir River is also Afghanistan. Roads were very corrugated, sandy, and gravelly–tough riding!

P1020542Have you ever seen free-range camels?! Bactrian camels on the Afghan side of the Pamir River. I couldn’t see anyone taking care of them or riding them.

P1020543a whole lot of nothingness

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8/3 Khargush -> camp with Moshii @ Alichur

After not seeing a single living soul for quite some hours, I was quite surprised around mid-morning when I encountered these two girls and their little brother on a donkey. They were herding sheep and cattle in the valley and had a pot of yogurt with them. When they saw me, they said “Kefir? Yogurt?” Of course! YUM…the yogurt was the freshest, most delicious yogurt I’ve ever tasted in my life! The girls wanted to give me the whole pot for the road, but I told them I couldn’t take it because it would spoil.

I chatted with them for a bit. They were from the village Vrang (remember, several days ago?). During the school year, they live in Vrang, but in the summers, they herd their livestock all the way out here to graze. Their parents were living and working in Moscow until they have enough money to come home. Their baby sister was also with their parents in Moscow.

P1020551brother and sisters who shared their fresh-made yogurt with me near Kharghush military post

Several kilometers later, I passed the military post at Kharghush, and started heading uphill to Kharghush Pass, the first of 5 mountain passes. Just as the uphill got steep I noticed a sound from my back wheel. OH NO! BROKEN SPOKE!

I had all the tools to fix it though, so I didn’t need to worry too much. The broken spoke was also on the non-cassette side, which is was easier to fix. While I was doing my repairs, the cars that passed stopped for me to make sure I was OK. Some were locals and others were tourists. Then a cyclist also showed up. His name was Moshii, an Israeli-Russian who lives in New Zealand. He goes on a bike touring trip every year for several weeks when he’s between seasonal work, so he’s been all over the world and offered his moral support. He joked that I was carrying a bike shop on my bike, since I brought so many tools.

After repairs, I pushed my bike most of the way up Kharghush Pass. The roads were just too steep and gravelly.

P1020562Kharghush Pass at approx. 4300 m

Some 30 kms of some very bad sections of dirt road on the descent, the bad road joined with the main road which was paved. The sweet sweet sight of asphalt! Moshii and I found camp just before dark at a nice spot next to a creek.

P1020571P1020576biking with Moshii after Kharghush Pass

P1020586camp with Moshii next to the creek

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8/4 Alichur -> Murghab

The next morning, Moshii set off ahead of me. We decided it was best to go at our own pace during the day, but perhaps find each other again in the evening to camp, since it’s nice to camp with other people.

P1020592P1020596Alichur village. Population is half Kyrgyz and half Pamiri

P1020598P1020602the Alichur plains, where we start seeing Kyrgyz herders and their yurts

Since it’s hard to eat enough in Central Asia, I decided to have a big brunch at a roadside restaurant. The restaurant was run by a Kyrgyz family. The oldest child was 17. They all go to school in Alichur.

Apparently the restaurant is popular with many Chinese truck drivers that pass through here. I was the only one at the restaurant at 10am though. I stayed awhile after I finished eating because I started to feel a shortness of breath. The altitude was finally catching up to me.

P1020606P1020605P1020604Brunch: shorpa (soup) with a piece of meat and a piece of potato. And a small plate of fried fish. The restaurant had a small solar panel!

 

P1020601P1020621For tourists, there are a couple of places that have yurtstays in the middle of the scenic landscape.

P1020620trucker stop in the middle of nowhere

By the end of the day, I crossed another mountain pass and had a nice long descent (with an awesome tailwind!) into the village of Murghab.

P1020608P1020627Enroute Murghab. Absolutely amazing scenery all the way.

Pamir Highway, Part 1 — Dushanbe to Khorog

* 8/13

Dear Readers, thank you for being patient with my lack of updates. In Tajikistan, there was no internet outside of Dushanbe and Khorog, and Khorog’s internet was too slow to upload pictures. I arrived in Osh, Kyrgystan a few days ago after finishing the Pamir Highway, very exhausted and a little sick. The mountains really kicked my butt!! Between the steep hills, rough road, and altitude, I developed a bad cough that won’t seem to go away. I spent the last 4 days resting in Osh to let my body fully recover and build up reserves again.

I’m finally ready to head to Bishkek [capital city of Kyrgystan] tomorrow on the main road. Even though I wanted to take a more interesting route through Kyrgystan to visit the more scenic parts, it would involve many steep uphills on rough road and take double the time.  I decided it would be best to take the easier, paved main road to Bishkek for a variety of reasons:

1) to give my body a rest after taking the more challenging routes in Tajikistan

2) my bike will also probably thank me for this, since I broke 2 spokes on the Pamir Highway, and I don’t have anymore spare ones. Once I get to Bishkek where there are proper bike shops, I can buy more.

3) I’m a bit short on time because I want to make it to Mongolia before winter hits there in mid-October. It’ll take me at least another month to get through Kazakhstan and Russia.

4) there will be plenty more bad roads in Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

—————————————————————————

There are two roads from Dushanbe to Khorog. The northern route is the official Pamir Highway–it’s shorter, but the road is crappier and the mountain pass is higher. The southern route has more paved road and follows the Afghan border from Shurobad. The cyclists I bumped into along the way had taken the southern route, so I followed suit.

It normally takes cyclists 7 days to complete this section, but it took me 10 days because the locals kept holding me hostage with their wonderful hospitality.

7/19 Dushanbe -> Nurak

I stayed an extra night in Dushanbe, as after I said goodbye to the expedition guys, I found a place to stay with couchsurfing host Martin from Germany. He works for a German organization in Dushanbe that is helping the Tajik government with doing a census this year. He’s also a fellow cycle tourist, and worked in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan before Tajikistan. He had a lot of stories to tell!

He took me to a delicious Chinese restaurant. Since this was the first time I had Chinese food on the trip, it made me so happy. I felt ready to tackle the infamous Pamir Mountains.

P1020231climbing out of Dushanbe was tiring, but had some great views

P1020234Tajikistan pride–this was the greeting to every town on the road

—————–

7/20 Nurak -> grassy camp somewhere

P1020236lots of Chinese industry in Tajikistan. there are plenty of construction camps along the road.

P1020238Chinese-built tunnel

P1020241after hard climbs comes beautiful views

P1020248I like the sound of that!

P1020250enroute Kulob

P1020251a car stopped for me and gave me this watermelon. delicious lunch in this hot weather!

P1020252P1020253village life

P1020255brick making by the river

——————-

7/21 grassy camp somewhere -> Vose

P1020262crazy bazaar car-park near Vose. looked a lot like Harvard football pre-game tailgating

After cycling only 15 km, I arrived in the town Vose and stopped at the store. It was still early — 9 am. A woman at the store invited me for tea; I accepted. She lived with a big family just a couple houses away. I couldn’t tell who was who and how everyone was related to each other, but they all gave me a warm welcome.

After chai, I stood up to leave, and the family asked: “Kuda? Where are you going?” I explained in some broken Russian that I was going to keep cycling. They said: “No! You need to eat first.” So I sat down again and they prepared a bowl of egg soup. After eating, I stood up again to leave, and the family again asked: “Kuda? Where are you going?” Again, I explained I was going to keep cycling. They replied: “Why don’t you rest and spend the night here?” “Oh, no, I should really keep cycling.” After some back and forth, the woman who invited me for chai clasped her hands together and begged in English: “PLEASE STAY!!” How could I refuse such a plead? So I agreed to rest the whole day there and stay the night. Where did I really need to be anyways? I remembered my favorite poem again: “Do not try to wrestle with the universe, but be like water or air. ”

I spent the day watching the family build a new home next door with homemade bricks and mud plaster, napping, and just generally hanging with the fam.

P1020267chai with Grandfather

P1020265egg soup

P1020291family in Vose

P1020270Dad is building new home

P1020271Grandfather says he is strong like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee

P1020278woman that invited me for tea and who begged me to stay the day with them

P1020275P1020284

P1020287eggplant dinner. was a lot yummier than it looks in the picture

 

———————-

7/22 Vose -> Shurabad

P1020290shir chai for breakfast — milk steeped with tea leaves and butter. then they take dried bread and soak it inside. I ate this so many times in Tajikistan–sometimes I think this was the only thing some poor families had to eat. I didn’t mind eating it, but I didn’t think it was particularly tasty.

P1020295another big uphill climb

——————

7/23 Shurabad -> Khirmanjo

So many fantastic experiences with people this day that I didn’t very far on the bicycle. I felt that all the different parts of my trip (and my identity) came together in a magical way.

P1020298P1020299got to the top of the mountain pass around mid-morning and got invited to chai with this beekeeper and his son. it was really nice to have one-on-one conversations as opposed to the mobs you get in town. the beekeeper was very patient with my Russian and encouraged me to look up words. Really amazing man. He normally lives 5 km outside of Kulob, but he camps here to look after the bees. During our pleasant conversation, he fed me lots of bread, chai, watermelon, and even cooked me a bowl of noodles!

P1020301shortly after the amazing beekeeper experience, I got to a police checkpoint where these Chinese guys were also stopped. In their group were also two Tajik guys who spoke fluent Chinese; they worked as translators. The group was from a Chinese construction company, and they were driving around Tajikistan scouting out work. When I told them I was Chinese-American, and my parents are from Guangdong, they said the company (and their projects in Tajikistan) is funded by American and Hong Kong investors. Crazy how small the world is!

Two guys were from Beijing, one was from Guangdong. It was really exciting for all of us (including the Tajik guys) to speak Chinese in the middle of nowhere in Tajikistan. The guy from Guangdong said he hasn’t spoken Cantonese in a year!

They were all incredulous that I was cycling to Beijing. The guy on the left (who is from Beijing) asked if I had a place to stay in Beijing. When I said no, he said that when I arrive in Beijing, he wants to personally greet me there with all his family. Yet something else to look forward to in Beijing!

P1020304a little more cycling…

P1020307stopped again! This time, the new road is built by a Turkish company. Most of the guys were Turkish, and it was fun to speak in full-on Turkish again since the beginning of my trip. They fed me beans and rice with a nice stew, watermelon, canteloupe, and lots of tea and juice. One guy explained that in Turkey, he can only make $600 per month; in Tajikistan, he makes $2000 per month, but after living expenses and taxes, he pockets $1700. The downside is living quarters in Tajikistan are crap.

The guys insisted that it wouldn’t be safe for me to camp alone in these parts of the world (“snakes!” they said). I would stay with the family of one of the Tajik workers, which was in Khirmanjo, a village 20km away.

P1020318entering the Pyanj valley. Hello Afghanistan (on other side of river)!

P1020320the father was a Tajik guy working with the Turkish road crew. dinner and a place to stay with his family.

————————-

7/24 Khirmanjo -> drainage culvert Rohaq

P1020323meeting the mighty Pyanj River for the first time. The Pyanj here forms the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

P1020327some sketchy bridge

P1020328first bridge to the Afghan side

P1020331P1020340P1020347crazy beautiful valley/ gorge along the Pyanj River. the next several hundred kilometers is along this river. One of the most incredible things was, in some narrow sections of the river, the kids on the Afghan side would wave and shout “Hi!” and run along with you on the opposite shore. It was incredible to observe traditional Afghan life all along the way (women and children washing down by the river, or carrying haystacks way into the mountains, or herders with their donkeys), and to see the footpaths on the Afghan side weaving up the cliffs way up into the mountains.

P1020345Iranians built the awesome new road through the rugged valley. Thanks Iran!

P1020337Afghan village on opposite bank

————————————————————-

7/25 Rohaq -> Kalai-Kum -> Keshvon teahouse

P1020356kids go to school

P1020357P1020384roadside propaganda

P1020359P1020360P1020363P1020365more Afghan villages and the Badakshan mountains

P1020361irrigation bridge from Tajik side to Afghan side

P1020369French installed drinking taps in the towns

P1020371P1020372

————————————————

7/26 Keshvon -> Dashtak family

P1020374P1020375P1020381P1020397crazy parts of the road: effective electrical poles, some rugged parts, and some beautiful mountains

P1020380passing village women carrying things on their heads. you can see the footpath on the Afghan side.

At around 6pm, as I passed through the village of Dashtag, a young guy waved me down “spat! spat! sleep! sleep!”; he was inviting me to rest the night with his family. Although tired, I could see from riding that day that many of these villages were poor and I didn’t want to burden the family, so I politely declined. Another hundred meters later, again I heard “spat! spat!” This time it was a group of young girls. When I stopped to say hi, they begged me to stay, so I decided to accept this time.  The courtyard was large and green–the most relaxing place you could ask for after a long day of riding! I ate dinner with the family — tomato/onion salad, a large plate of mutton, and watermelon for dinner. After dinner, I set up my tent in their yard.

After dark, I was about to fall asleep when I heard a lot of commotion. Apparently another cyclist had showed up!

P1020386P1020388P1020389

—————————————————————————-

7/27 Dashtak -> camp with Johannes @ Shidz

In the morning, I met Johannes, the (German) cyclist who had showed up the night before at Dashtag. The family also fed him and he camped in their yard. He had come through the northern route from Dushanbe, and was also headed to Khorog. Funny how cyclists you meet on the road become instant family!

P1020392cycling with Johannes

P1020393tourist jackpot day! I guess since the Pamir Highway is “famous”, we met a lot of travellers on the road. this Aussie guy was on a motorbike. He works on the gas rigs outside of Aberdeen. On his off rotations from the rigs, he takes a trip somewhere in the world on his motorbike. On his last trip through Kyrgystan, he left his motorbike in Dushanbe. So this trip, he flew to Dushanbe and spent a week in the Pamirs with a random family he met on the road. How many walks of life there are!

P1020390this valley never stops changing and being amazing

P1020394P1020396stopped in this village where we got invited for lunch:  Borj (stew of mixed grains and barley). someone was making delicious-smelling apricot jam. along this road were so many apricot trees–sometimes Johannes and I would stop and just stuff our faces with apricots

P1020398best time to ride is from 5pm-7pm, when its cool and you watch the setting sun

———————————————————-

7/28 Shidz-> Khorog

P1020410P1020409P1020411got invited (again) for lunch this day. Grandma, the head of the household spoke good English. She’s an English teacher in the local school. She loved studying English since high school and got a scholarship to the university in Dushanbe.

We have now officially entered the Pamirs, whose people are very different from the lowland Tajiks. They speak a completely different language (there are several dialects in the Pamirs including Wakhi, Rushani, Shugnani, Iskashimi.) In the schools they learn Tajik, Russian, English, and their local dialect. Grandma explained that culturally, they feel more similar with Russians than with Tajiks. Many of them where Western clothes and they are not as religious as the lowland Tajiks. They identify themselves as “Pamiri” and don’t like to be called “Tajik”.

Because all the villages are poor and there is no work in Tajikistan, almost every family has some relative in Russia sending money home. Grandma explained that you can earn the same money working a menial job in Moscow as working a professional job like an accountant in Dushanbe.

P1020414P1020415intimate roads through the villages. a woman washing carpets

P1020418local swimming place

P1020421

P1020422passing villagers

P1020425clear blue water meets the murky might Pyanj

P1020426P1020427entering Khorog

P1020428oh yes, another awesome picture of the president

P1020429Khorog “city” — more like town — but so beautiful set in the mountains!

P1020431staying at the Pamir Lodge in Khorog where you meet the most hardcore travellers. Many travellers were doing extended hiking trips through the most remote areas of the Pamirs and in Afghanistan along the Wakhan corridor.

There was a Kiwi guy who has seasonal work in Australia. Last year when the recession hit hard, he decided to travel because living in Australia with no job was too expensive. He travelled for several months overland from Hong Kong to London, through Pakistan, Tajikistan, and so many other places. He had amazing stories of spending a week in Wakhi Pakistan during the winter and experiencing a wedding there.

There was also an American-Greek guy, Thono, who is also biking and has a very similar trip to me. He started his bike tour in Greece and is also headed to Mongolia and China. Unfortunately, I never got his contact info.

P1020430this wonderful shop lady who gave me lots of extra goodies for my trip

 

Tajikistan – Road to the Pamirs

I think I messed up a bit on dates. Anyhow, the journey continues.

7/12 Karshi–> Dehqonobod

I couldn’t resist tears as I said goodbye to my new Uzbek family. Father sent me off with a pharmacy coat (“it’s white, cooler under the sun!”), Mother gave me a pretty headscarf, and Gayrat (brother) wished me well. They told me I should spend the night in Dehqonobod–Father’s home village 90 km away–so I could stay with Father’s sister. They gave me the phone numbers of their relatives there, then Ulugbek biked with me to the edge of town.

P1020142Fayoza (Gayrat’s daughter)–cutest baby ever!

P1020144Honum, fried crepe thing with meat and onions

P1020146the fam sends me off from their little pharmacy shop in Karshi

Throughout the day, it was pretty slow going–I don’t know if it was the heat or the hills–but eventually I made it to Dehqonobod before it got completely dark. I met Father’s sister (Aunt Movluda) and her husband and two kids. How nice it felt to be fed and taken care of again! We had a nice meal together with a few neighbors, then slept outside under another starry night.

P1020153road to Dehqonobod, going into more interesting scenery than desert

7/13 Sick day in Dehqonobod

When I woke up the next morning, I had a splitting headache and a whole lot of going-to-the-toilet. My stomach was painful, and it was clear that I could not bike. I took medicine and spent the rest of the day sleeping and drinking lots of water. The whole family in Dehqonobod took care of me, and even though I felt so miserable physically, I felt so lucky to have everyone by my side. Throughout the day, Father and Mother called me regularly from Karshi to ask how I was feeling; Gayrat offered to personally deliver medicine to me; and Ulugbek kept me company over the phone.  Of course, I was in tears again to feel so cared for. By dinner time, I was feeling a lot better, and was able to eat again and chat with Auntie and the family.

P1020156Extended family in Dehqonobod who took care of me in sickness

7/14 Dehqonobod –> Boysun

P1020159I learned that these Willi Betz trucks are carrying US army supplies to Afghanistan

P1020162these village women helped fill my water bottles from the well, and gave me bread!

P1020160long lines at the police checkpoint

P1020172

7/15 Boysun –> Shorchi, maybe

P1020183town of Boysun

P1020184these guys are from Karshi, but work nearby at a natural gas company. they treated me for a super delicious brunch– meat and tea!

P1020194Omonxona water from the Boysun region supposedly has minerals beneficial to health. Police officer gave it to me

P1020190grasslands

7/16 Shorchi –> Denav –> Tajik border –> some camp 10km after border, Tajikistan

After leaving camp, I had a short breakfast stop, then headed to the town of Denav. I was invited to lunch at a restaurant in the center of town, then I was in a bit of a hurry because I was hoping to make it to the Tajik border the same day. But I couldn’t resist a watermelon stop and a short nap afterwards.

P1020196P1020204P1020200In Denav, the bread/samsa maker at this restaurant invited me to sit down for lunch. At first, I was overwhelmed by so many people crowding around me trying to talk to me, but they turned out to be really wonderful people. They refused to let me pay for lunch.

P1020207can’t have enough of delicious watermelons here

I arrived at the border crossing at 5.30pm, and I was relieved to still see so many people crossing at the same time. The Uzbek side was the usual–thoroughly inspected all my bags–but the good thing was they didn’t check my hotel registrations at all. (It may have been a problem if they did because I didn’t register in a hotel my last week in Uzbekistan). The Tajik side was super easy–they didn’t check my bags at all–and my conversation with the border official was pleasant: “First time in Tajikistan?” “Yes” “You go Pamir [Mountains]?” “Yes” “Oh, beautiful!”

Just after crossing, I got ripped off badly by changing Uzbek soms at the border…ooops. I was tired and didn’t want the wad of Uzbek cash in my pocket any more.

But after bad things, good things always happen. Shortly after, I met two Polish cyclists headed in the other direction. They had just cycled for two weeks in Afghanistan! Wow, it really shows that nothing is impossible. Last year, they cycled the main Pamir highway (where I am headed), and this year, they returned to cycle other roads in the Pamirs, and to go into Afghanistan. They had a friend at home who is a climbing guide in the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan (famous mountaineering region), and recommended them to go there. They said as long as you stay in the north in the mountains along the Wakhan corridor, it is very safe. They took the same road in and out, and went trekking in the mountains along the way.

P1020213Tajikistan

7/17 some camp 10km after border –> Dushanbe, Tajikistan (capital city)

After crossing the border, the first thing I noticed was everyone started greeting me with “Nihao!” It turns out the new road from the border to Dushanbe (66km) is being built by the Chinese, so there are Chinese workers everywhere. It’s been interesting to discover where China is getting all its wealth from in other countries.

I was in a hurry this day as well, because I needed to get to Dushanbe early enough to apply for a special permit for my onward journey through Tajikistan on the Pamir Highway. The Pamir Highway is the second highest road in the world and also famous as the most spectacular cycle route in the world (spectacular as in scenery, not road conditions).

On the way, I bumped into another cyclist, Sebastien from Slovenia, who gave me useful information about the Pamir Highway and Dushanbe. He gave me the unfortunate news that there were many cyclists sick in Dushanbe right now because of bad water and bad watermelon (apparently they suck all the chemicals and fertilizers out of the ground). No more watermelon for me!  He also suggested I find an alternative to the hostel in Dushanbe because it’s pretty much the worst hostel ever. Duly noted! I thanked him by giving him my Turkish currency and other useful maps for his journey.

P1020217

At the permit office in Dushanbe were the most foreigners I’ve seen in awhile, applying for the same GBAO permit. To apply, I went to the Amonotbank to pay the 20 somoni, then handed the receipt back to the permit office. They told me the permit would be ready next day at 10am.

While waiting, I met a group of 5 young guys from the University of Cambridge (UK) who were on a climbing expedition in Tajikistan. They started 2 weeks ago in London, driving an SUV with a trailer. I could not believe they covered the distance from London to Tajikistan in such a short time! Later on, I bumped into them again at the internet cafe, and they said they rented an apartment for the night. Since I didn’t have a place to stay yet, they let me stay with them. Alternative to hostel, check!

Back at the apartment, it was like entering the MIT Outing Club office. Mountaineering gear was scattered everywhere — maps, ropes, axes, boots, medical supplies, hiking poles, sleeping bags, more climbing equipment. They argued about how much and what food to bring, what gear to send home, and planned their climbing/ trekking routes (reminded me too much of Winter School).

When I asked them how they knew where to go, they said they acquired really great Soviet maps in the archives at the University of Cambridge, and they knew of two Polish guys who climbed a similar mountain range in Tajikistan recently.

P1020219P1020223P1020222expedition guys from the University of Cambridge, planning their next steps

P1020218streets of Dushanbe

7/18 Dushanbe

Picked up the GBAO permit this morning, and did a lot of internetting. On my way soon to the Kulyab, Khorog, and the Pamir Highway! I will have very limited internet access in the next few weeks until Osh, Kyrgyzstan, so hope to update again on the flip side!