Khorog to Murghab. Cycling on the roof of the world!
After three days in Khorog, and with Grant and Sasha both departing too, I felt it was time to tackle my next challenge of the trip. I had 700 km’s of hard, cold mountains ahead of me. It was the final push to China and it would no doubt be the hardest part of the trip thus far. To say that I wobbled out of Khorog with a heavy heart would be an understatement indeed.
Cycle touring along the Pamir highway, Tajikistan
After some short steep hills, I reached my first checkpoint where I had my Pamir permit checked but upon seeing that it was impeccable, was allowed on my way. I have heard of so many people having to pay fines for ‘missing’ regions that I was very weary of these checkpoints but thus far, I’ve sailed through them all. Hope it continues.
I won’t go into detail about the rest of the day. Suffice to say that it was, simply put, one of the most joyous days I have had on the bicycle in quite some time. The scenery along the Gunt valley that I now found myself cycling through was just incredible. There was almost 100% asphalt which I kind of found even more incredible and the temperature hovered in the mid-twenties: perfect for cycling. I had lots of fresh produce in my bags which would keep for several days and my spirits couldn’t have been lifted any more. I was so happy I even found myself enjoying saying hello to all the children, slapping their hands and saying “salam alaikum” to all the adults. I felt like a different man.
After thirty km’s, just as I was picking my way through the only sand and gravel part of the road for the day, I looked up to see Sasha's head peering from the window of a jeep that had just zoomed past. He was heading to Murghab too but would be there much sooner than I. Funny that.
I set off a little too early the next day as I wanted to get into the sun as early as possible. It wasn’t a particularly cold night but the temperature was still hovering around 0 degrees as I broke camp and getting into that sun was my only real concern.
Stopped for coffee after ten km’s and ate some porridge. Really am starting to get sick of this in the mornings now. Its lost its appeal that’s no lie. I’m planning on using home-stays as much as possible for the next week so I’m looking forward to eggs, bread and meat in the mornings instead.
I spent the day once again riding through beautiful scenery as I made my way gently up to 3700 metres. Khorog stands at a quite substantial 2200 metres but because the ascent to the Pamir Plateau at 4300 metres is so gradual, it's also not very noticeable.
As the day wore on, I said goodbye to the last of the villages and the mountains became barer, starker and more brooding. The lovely autumnal colours of the foliage began to disappear too.
Towards the end of the day, I saw the unmistakable outline of a German lady I had first met back in Dushanbe and then very briefly in Khorog. I quickened my pace and caught up with her where I found out her brakes had once again failed. She had cycled ten days from Dushanbe with no brakes which I found quite incredible when you consider the many, many steep cliffs that crop up around every corner. Thinking she had them sorted in Khorog, she set off again only to find them fail her a second time.
We decided to cycle on together and pulled into the tiny village of Jelandy not long after. We followed these four men in a car whom said there was a shop in the village. It took us about fifteen minutes until we were finally escorted to the correct building. Alas, not much was on offer. It seemed the entire contents of the shop consisted of oil, noodles, condensed milk and snickers. This was to become a familiar fixture.
The actual pass to the plateau lay some twenty km’s ahead and we both wanted to get as close to the bottom as possible to ensure an easier ride the following day. We rode on and on until my legs could literally take no more at which point I stopped by what I thought was the perfect spot to camp. Annette came gliding down the last hill five minutes later and with the sun beginning its slow descent towards the horizon, we wheeled the bikes off the road and begin to pitch.
It really is a race against time now to get everything sorted for the night and to cook too. Once that sun has disappeared, the temperature really does begin to drop quickly thus you really have to be in your sleeping bag by six. This is the other startling and probably the least enjoyable thing about camping at this time of year; you’re forced to lie in your sleeping bag from 6pm till 7pm as it's simply too cold for anything else. It’s no fun at all, particularly as it hurts to simply remove a finger to turn to the next page on your book. By seven, there is not much to do but sleep.
The wind howled during the night which meant a restless sleep for me. I checked the temperature outside and found it was still hovering around zero which pleased me very much. I’ll be sleeping above 4000 metres the next day and surely the temperature couldn’t drop so much in 500 metres? I hoped.
I helped Annette get her bicycle back onto the road and bade her farewell and good luck in the morning. She would be trying to hitch a lift with one of the Chinese trucks that passed every so often and so it made no sense to cycle together. Besides, our speeds were vastly different.
I made my way up the pass but stopped after ten km’s for yes, you guessed it, another bowl of porridge. I might be sick of it but it is the breakfast of champions and just what I needed to get me up to that dammed plateau!
As the switchbacks appeared, so did the gravel, rocks and sand which made it hell to continue to cycle. Many times I had to get off and push the bike over the worst parts and many times I had to stop just to catch my breath. The altitude was now really playing a role in my fight to the top. It was honestly….hmm…..very hard.
Cycling the roof of the world - The Pamir highway
I of course did reach the top but was quite disappointed to find no marker to indicate my new lofty height of 4300 metre’s. Instead I just cycled on and stopped for a while to take in the view around me. It was magnificent. The valley had given way and the mountains had fallen back to create a vast open plain in the sky. I was officially on “the rood of the world”. What a feeling. I was cycling 4300 metres up in the sky and it was kind of a surreal moment.
I spent the next few hours cycling along, following a road that felt more akin to the surface of the moon. It did feel quite lunar-ish with the absence of vegetation and the almost desert like feel.
I began to worry about finding water too. I was down to perhaps half a litre but every small patch of water I spotted seemed not to be moving which, for me, is the first thing I look for in a source of water. As I cycled on though, I stopped and went down to take a closer look. Once I had smashed through the ice, the water was thankfully running quite wildly and so I filled up with haste before the gale force winds blew my bike down the side of the cliff.
I found a spot, behind a huge sign marking the Pamir Highway and was able to make some noodles for a much needed energy boost. Even this was labour intensive though as the petrol in my stove takes forever to burn at this altitude. Again, I’m thankful I thought ahead and brought an extra litre with me. It might take me forever to climb hills but at least I never run out of anything; water, petrol, food etc.
I returned to the road which had now picked up some asphalt and cycled through the valley beforeI decided to tackle the next big climb before the day was out.
I heaved and pushed my bike gradually up the hill, breathing hard all the way up to help my oxygen deprived lungs. A convoy of trucks inched passed me too and I noticed that, on the gravel, even they were struggling. One even stopped and began to roll backwards. A few minutes later, I heard a truck toot its horn right behind me but as was my custom, decided to simply ignore it. As it pulled itself alongside me, Annette popped her head out. She had climbed the pass but had now codged a lift. She asked if I was alright and I managed to cough out some words to the effect that I was and we said our goodbyes.
After a couple of hundred metres more, I decided enough was enough. It was time to camp. It was still only four but at least I could cook my dinner whilst there was at least some warmth from the sun and so I hastily retreated behind a huge pile of rocks out of the wind and began my house building.
As 6 pm came and went, so too did the sun and with it the temperature began to plummet. I retreated quickly into my tent wearing almost everything I owned; two pairs of warm socks, thermals, sweater, down jacket, Russian hat and gloves. In the end I was actually quite toasty but when I looked at my thermometer outside in the early hours, was astonished to find the temperature had plummeted to -13. With my clothes, tent, sleeping bag and sleeping liner, I slept on the very edge of comfort. To make matters worse I had a throbbing headache that hadn’t ceased all day.
By seven the next day however, and with the sun beginning to warm my tent just a little, I could at least make some coffee – a highlight of my mornings I suppose.
Everything is just so difficult at these temperatures though. Finding the will to put back on the socks you were wearing yesterday is hard. Climbing out the sleeping bag and putting on ice cold trousers and boots becomes a modest mountain to climb. You end up dancing around outside your tent as you pack everything up trying to defrost your now ice cold hands and feet. Urghh.
I decided to push my bike up the rest of the hill in the morning, if only to try to get some feeling back into my numb feet. I was strangely happy though in fact. I was over 4000 metre’s up, heaving my heavily laden bicycle through the gravel. My water was completely frozen and it was still – 10 degrees. It felt like a real adventure now. There ain’t no support crew here. I was on my own.
The road was simply hell for the next ten km’s. Just huge rocks scattered over a washboard surface. The trucks that passed in convoys of five or six weren’t moving much faster than me though.
When I finally turned some corners and saw tarmac I was of course delighted and humbled at the same time. The scenery simply took my breath away. The wind swept and hazy mountains in the distance rose up over the salt lakes in the foreground. It just looked so remote and it was amazing to be part of it.
With the monstrous wind behind me, I arrived in the tiny village of Alichur by noon and had an easy decision to make. I didn’t want to camp again if I could help it but the next village stood 105 km’s away over unknown terrain and so I decided to sleep in a guesthouse and would make a mad dash for it the next day to the town of Murghab. It was the only sensible thing to do.
I stayed in the first guesthouse I came to, thankful to be out of the blisteringly cold wind and into the relative warmth of a home that smelt of Yak dung.
I was only charged the modest price of $3 for the night and she cooked me some eggs with bread too. I cannot tell you how wonderful it felt just to be in a building with eggs in front of me. My needs were very basic by this point and thus warmth, shelter and food are my only real concerns.
I spent the rest of the day fixing some niggling issues with my bike and panniers, reviewing my map of China (It’s been stored away in my bag for seven months now) and had a walk around the village.
Well Alichur is pretty desolate. The place smelt only of Yak Dung, the buildings were all in various states of is disrepair and the ferocious wind battered you from the west. It must be a hard place to live. I tried to locate a shop. I didn’t actually need anything but I just wanted something to do. When I eventually found someone to open the shop I had found, the shelves were pretty sparse. I bought some more noodles if only because I seemed to have inconvenienced him.
I dined on the local staple of a huge plate of plov in the evening and settled in for a thoroughly restless night as the winds continued to batter the building. Hard place to live.
The people here looked completely different from most Tajiks I had met up until this point. Their faces were slimmer, more oriental looking and so I assumed they were of Kyrgyz origin.
I set off the next morning on a white knuckle ride to Murghab, 105 km’s away. About the only thing I could say about the day was that the landscapes continued to take what little breath I had away. It was eerily desolate – a windswept frozen desert 4000 metres up in the sky. It was amazing. Hurricane force winds blew me across the plateau and although I spent the first part of the day climbing, I really didn’t need to pedal so hard. The wind was that strong. It was unbelievable and I was extremely happy that I was coming from the west.
The temperature was low though. It hovered around 0 degrees for most of the day and knew that if this was the case, then it would be more like – 20 in the evening. I had to make it to Murghab and the warmth of a guesthouse.
After my customary eggs in the morning, I didn’t eat anything during the day. The wind was just too strong to get off the bike and so when I climbed the last small hill and saw the small buildings of Murghab in the distance, I was thoroughly relieved. It was a sight for sore eyes that’s for sure.
I had my permit checked for what would be the last time of the trip and was told the town was still 5 km’s away. I was taken aback by this as it looked much closer but distances are deceptive in vast open spaces. I pedalled on with aching legs and hunger brooding in my stomach and have never been more relieved to reach such a sorry little town in my life.
I found a lovely guesthouse where the owner couldn’t do enough for me. I was given my own room, some hearty food and was left to lie, feeling quite shattered, on my bed. He came in every hour to keep the coal burning fire smouldering and brought me endless cups of tea. There was a hot shower outside heated by coal and even electricity for four hours a day from 6 pm. These were luxuries beyond description.