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  • Jamie Shannon

Murghab to Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan

Currently in Longnan, China. This is very late but up until now I have been thoroughly disconnected from the wider world due to the compromising firewall that prevails here. Thankfully, I now seem to have found a way around it. This post was written some time ago as I was leaving Kashgar behind.

I have only posted up to Murghab back in Tajikistan in the past week. I’ve had electricity. I’ve had surprisingly fast internet and I’ve certainly had enough time so what are my excuses you may ask? Well in fact this man has exactly none. For the past week I have been enjoying the delights of civilisation again in lovely Kashgar and have spent the last six days doing nothing more strenuous than eating, relaxing, some more eating and relaxing interspersed with some light drinking at the hostel. It’s been a tough old week but one which I have enjoyed immensely. Those long days on the bike and the inevitable camping that comes with it certainly helps you to enjoy the small creature comforts we all seem to take for granted.

But I think I should write about my experience in getting here which was full of twists and turns and bleak moments so I guess it should make for a good write up.

I’ll try to remember the odd, funny moments as much as possible but as I’m now sat on a delightfully comfy Chinese train making my way 3000 km’s east to the city of Lanzhou (hopefully to be re united with my bicycle), It’s proving difficult to cast my mind back to two weeks ago which is probably why I’m babbling on now.

Murghab, Tajikistan
The metropolis of Murghab, Tajikistan

Continuing my cycle journey north through Tajikistan

I enjoyed two nights in a guesthouse in Murghab with an owner whom really couldn’t do enough for me. He would come into my room every hour or so to tend to the coal fire and would continually ask me if there was anything I needed. When a group of Americans, Germans and a French guy arrived, he even stuck them all in the same room leaving myself to enjoy a private space even though my room had two perfectly adequate beds available. I hope this wasn’t due to any odours I was emitting though. Either way, it was nice to have my own room.

The owner had told me that beyond Lake Karakol, the next few passes would be covered in the first snows of the year, something which was acutely reaffirmed later by the big group that had arrived via a jeep.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. This was the only tin pot town of any distinction until Sary Tash in Kyrgyzstan and that lay 250 km’s away over some formidable terrain. Added to this was the fact that there was little to no accommodation along the way save for the odd small house spaced loosely at 100 kilometre intervals. Murgarb would be the only place I could take transport from and if it snowed heavily, I would be completely stuck up there with no way out. The few vehicles per day that did pass through would be completely filled with people and their belongings such is the fact that a jeep only ever sets off when it’s completely full – something I was to experience later. Oh and if I did get stuck in the snow, the temperature would most likely be minus twenty and I would be on my own.

In the end I decided I at least had to give it a try. This was the very least I could do. Having come all this way on a bicycle it seemed like a ruinous way to end a trip of this magnitude with China just around the corner.

So it was in the morning that I set off, laden heavily with enough, food, water and benzene to keep me alive for a week and a mind still as indecisive as ever.

Murghab, Tajikistan

The road out of Murghab was not in such a bad state and the gradual climb from 3600 metre’s didn’t take much effort save for a few tricky parts. The landscape, although still amazing didn’t quite match the one that I had previously travelled through on the other side but it was still an awesome feeling to be cycling where I was. Even though the hills around you didn’t look mightily impressive, this being a plateau, I always had this feeling in the back of my mind that those little hills in the distance were about 5000 metres high. It was a sobering thought if ever I needed one.

Progress became increasingly difficult due to the ever present gail I was cycling into and I was finding the whole affair harder and harder due to my having to wear almost everything I owned to keep warm.

The pass ahead lay at a heart stopping altitude of 4600 metres, the highest on the Pamirs, and there was no way I wanted to sleep up there. Sleeping at 4300 metres had been difficult enough what with the heavy breathing and headaches that come with it and so I kept my eye open for a sheltered spot to camp for the night. I knew it would be another freezing night in my tent but I had no other choice.

In the end, I spied a sheltered spot off the road where I could make some food and drink some much needed tea to warm up. As I was doing this, a jeep approached from the opposite direction and so I flagged it down in the hope of gaining some information about the road ahead.

Upon asking some questions, the driver presented me with the most obvious sign I have yet to see about the condition of a road – that being of a very large cross. Then two Canadians popped their heads out the window and was told in no uncertain terms that the road ahead was covered in snow and ice and after the Tajik border post, was up to a foot thick for the remaining 50 kilometres to Sary-Tash. Now this was a problem.

If the road was covered in snow, then it was certainly not something I could cycle through. I berated my two week stay in Tbilisi and the cause of that – my Azeri visa. I berated my four day stay in Aktau in Kazakhstan and I cursed my weak stomach for prolonging my stay in Khorog.

This trip was supposed to be something that I would remember for the rest of my days but I also didn’t want those days to be shorter than they needed to be. Anything could happen out there, and if I was cycling with someone else, there would be no doubt that I would continue on but, being alone made the next part seem even more dangerous.

With this in mind, I did the only sensible thing I could do, I asked for lift back to Murghab.

Even though the jeep was clearly full, the driver didn’t hesitate with an answer. Perhaps smelling a few dollars or perhaps because he was just a fine old fellow, space was somehow made for myself and my bicycle for the journey back to Murghab.

The owner, Tulferbeck was quite happy to see me when I reappeared in the evening. The fire was stoked and a meal was prepared and I was able to settle in for a quiet, warm and wholesome night with a movie instead of a quiet, freezing and uncomfortable night in my tent. The difference was palpable.

I rose bright and early the following morning and headed straight for the bazar where I somehow managed to find a lift to Sary -ash for $25. I gave the man the name of my guesthouse and he said he would arrive at nine. I had to get my skates on. I needed to pack everything up again for journey number two.

Getting a lif in Tajikistan
It was a cozy ride with the other nine people in the jeep

The driver promptly arrived at nine and we began the process of filling the rack above with my bags and bike which, as you can imagine took some time. When I got in I thought, “well this is quite nice, I could get used to this”. We then proceeded to stop at what seemed like every house in Murghab to take on more people and more suitcases. The bike was taken off at each stop in order to accommodate the luggage of our ever expanding entourage and I was becoming ever more squashed up against the window in the back as the breathing space evaporated.

When we eventually left two hours later, the driver had somehow, and to his great credit and overwhelming grasp of economics, managed to squeeze in nine adults and one child. It would prove to be the second most uncomfortable journey of my life.

We stopped three hours later at the isolated village of Karakol where I had a brief moment of despair. The car pulled up outside a guesthouse where everyone got out to presumably get some food. I left and said I would be back in a moment after I had taken a photo. When I returned a few minutes later however, there was no one to be found. No jeep, no people. I stood there quite dumbfounded. Everything was in or on that car. The only thing I had on me were the clothes on my back and this stupid camera around my shoulder with a lens that kept falling off when it wasn’t held on by some duct tape. I darted round building after building and sprinted up back to the road but I couldn’t see the jeep anywhere. I then ran back to the village and shouted wildly at people. “Have you seen car, jeep, auto, machine? Bicycle? Veel spelet?” Nothing. I then continued to run around like a madman on a mission when, all of a sudden I saw the jeep parked right near the lake at the back of the village half a kilometre away. Relief was the only feeling I felt. I rushed down there as fast as my oxygen starved lungs would carry me and now began to berate my driver for driving. Too bad he didn’t understand me.

Lake Karakol
Lake Karakol

All the people in the village were of Kyrgyz origin, and when I entered a simple house and sat down on the floor to drink some tea with the driver, was astonished at just how bare the room was. Simple rugs were lay out over the floor but beautiful carpets hung down from every wall. The grandmother, whom sat by the fire in very elegant and colourful clothes, silently rocked the baby whom dozed lazily in an ornate little wooden bed. It was a really beautiful, touching and authentic scene and it reminded me that there were wonderful opportunities to observe the local people when off the bike too. Not as many I grant you but they were there to be had if you were lucky enough.

Back on the road, we climbed higher and higher around the lake, passing the huge barbed wire fence that separates Tajikistan from China to the east. The Chinese sure do love their barbed wire fences.

As I had been reliably informed, snow began to cover the ground around us with patches of ice appearing on the road at the same time. Pretty soon, it was like we were in a different world – a world of white and nothing else. Nowhere was left untouched by mother nature and every slope, hill or mountain was covered in a thick but beautiful layer of fresh snow.

Arriving at the Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan border

We arrived at the border after a long ascent over one of the worst roads I have seen and from then on out, we steadily descended through fresh and fluffy snow on the road. It was a truly beautiful sight to witness but I was very happy I was doing so from behind a window. Cycling in this would be suicide on my own and I felt happy at my decision but obviously a little frustrated at being so close to China and stuck in a car. I vowed at this moment to tackle the last eighty kilomentres to the border on two wheels. Nothing would stop me except for perhaps ice.

Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan border
Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan border

I almost wasn’t let into Kyrgyzstan as the border official wouldn’t believe that the photo in the passport was in fact me. Having been wearing my big Russian hat for the best part of ten days now, my hair was completely flat and straight which conflicted hugely with my passport photo. It took some convincing and me handing him some other passport photos for him to finally accept that I was whom I said I was and for our vehicle to be left to drive over the increasingly difficult terrain.

The whole of the country was completely covered in snow and you couldn’t even tell where the sky began and the mountains ended let alone where the road was and because of this, our 5o kilometre journey to Sary-Tash took us the best part of three hours.

We pulled up eventually as the evening encroached into the driveway of a café come guesthouse where I was informed of the rather ambitious fee. When I approached the counter in the café, there were two foreigners standing there enquiring about the price of food. I didn’t know who they were but stood next to them and remarked something in response to one of their questions. When the guy on the left turned round, I found it to be none other than Brecht, the Belgium guy I had set out with from Dushanbe. I couldn’t quite believe it. I had finally caught up with him at long last.

He had ended up cycling through Tajikistan with a fellow Belgium he had met on the road and the two had tackled the last part of the country together. By the looks of them and their bikes when I got back to their guesthouse, it hadn’t been an easy journey.

The lady in the cafe was giving such a shitty rate for dollars that I ended up paying the driver in dollars and asking him to exchange the 200 Som I had saved for him into Kyrgyz Som in order to allow me to survive for the next few days.

I found myself an hour later in a lovely and warm little guesthouse just a few hundred metres down the road with Brecht and his Belgium buddy. It was basically just a large room with rugs on the floor and a toilet 50 metres out the back but, with breakfast thrown in, $5 per night didn’t seem much.

And so began my wait for the snow to clear and the sun to shine. Alas, it would be a long wait.

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