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

P1020458P1020464

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.

2 Thoughts on “Pamir Highway, Part 2 – Khorog to Murgab

  1. Beautiful pics mui!

  2. The tasman and fox glaecir have retreated enomously as well. This already takes place over hundreds of years but in the last 200 years it is going at a far greater pace and many believe it is a result of global warming. It is a great worry what is happening

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