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!

P1020647P1020649

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!!!

8 Thoughts on “Pamir Highway, Part 3 (Final) – Murghab to Osh, Kyrgyzstan

  1. Wow. That elevation chart is amazing! Congrats for making it through mui!

  2. Been there twice- once in each direction. Now been there a third time, vicariously with you. Holy wow. By yourself and all alone.

  3. Creuza Simionatto on August 27, 2013 at 10:40 am said:

    So, you are entering China now? Already have? Oh, my, that is awesome! I am waiting to see pictures of gorgeous Budist’s temples/ caves along the silk route. Soon, I reckon…Take care of that cough!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Hooray! You did it! You are a beast Minwah :) I hope your cough is better, and I hope you are making up for the lack of proper food by eating as much as you can. Hopefully you can have some soupy buns sometime!

  5. Oh my Minwah!!! When you come to Colorado, you’re going to LAUGH at out tiny tiny mountain passes. 4655m? The continental US doesn’t even go that high!

    You’re such an inspiration, Minwah. Keep it up! <3

  6. :) great job! great stories and pics

  7. Michele Pratusevich on September 3, 2013 at 5:54 pm said:

    Minwah you kick so much ass! That’s absolutely amazing (and crazy, but what’s amazing without a good dose of crazy ;) ). Keep it up, love seeing your photos!

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