Pamir Highway Part III: Alichur – Kara-Kul

Alichur SunriseAlichur is a wide scattering of low, white washed hovels at the westernmost limit of Murgab Region’s predominantly Kyrgyz community whose occasional yurts and yak herds dot the mountain-edged plain at nearly 4000m that stretches over 300km northeast until Kara-Kul. For us it was like paradise when we entered the tiny Marco Polo homestay with its glowing tin oven that was emitting enough   heat to defrost our frozen bones.

More Blue is not possible

The next days we were biking through a remote, Tibetan-style high plateau scenery, occasionally populated by shepherds and stunted, low bushes, the main fire material aside from dried yak dung. The landscape is completely different from what we’ve seen in the Wakhan Valley.

Lunch Break

The vastness of the place and the lack of any vegetation or inhabitation together with the freezing temperatures create a lunar-like atmosphere that is now and then interrupted by indigo-blue, salt lakes. It’s not surprising why this area has become known as “Roof of the World”. Being here gives you an indescribable feeling for the majesty and sublimity of our unique world.

Murgab

150km without any settlement and a little pass at 4200m later, we reached Murgab, the utterly isolated regional center. The container houses and criss-crossing power lines don’t create an immediate charming atmosphere, but the hearty hospitality and delicious food at the colorful decorated Erali homestay, along with the well-deserved “bania” (a bucket of hot water in a fire heated little room) made us feel absolutely revived.

Freezing Cold

North of Murgab the high-altitude highway follows a fenced area of ‘neutral zone’ between Tajikistan and China and is slowly but constantly climbing higher. Along with the falling temperatures and oxygen saturation, our speed and energy were decreasing and simple things like pitching the tent at the end of day became quite a challenge. Temperatures at night were dropping dramatically and even fully dressed with our sleeping bags zipped together we were shivering with cold. In the morning it took a while before the solidly frozen little creek next to our camp was defrosted enough to give us water for our morning tea.

Before the highest PassBut two hard days after leaving Murgab we finally reached our long dreamed goal, we crossed the 4655m Ak-Baital (White Horse) pass, the biggest challenge on our journey on the “Roof of the World”!

On the Way to Kara-Kul

Tired but proud we were tackling the last stage on our road and were rolling on a dead straight road along the photogenic blue Kara-Kul lake with an dramatic mountain panorama on our back and an stunning view on the imposing peak Lenin ahead of us until we reached the scrappy but intriguing town Kara-Kul, where one last big surprise was waiting for us.

Regatta Preparations

It turned out that exactly the homestay that we had stopped at, was chosen as the central base for the “Roof of the World Regatta 2015”, the highest sailing event in the world! Most of the organization team and all participants, who were actually a lovely family from the UK with three talented Kite-Surfing daughters, were staying there and it didn’t take long until we became part of the team. Gui and his juggling show became the highlight of the opening ceremony at the local school and thanks to our comprehensive medical kit Martina was soon known as the official regatta medic after curing half of the team of the dreaded Pamiri sickness (also known as “having the runs”).

Roof of the World Regatta

On the big race day we were all together playing games with dozens of the local families before the event reached its climax with the final regatta race and an exuberant trophy ceremony. A big success for this year’s regatta team and a perfect ending for our marvelous Tajikistan adventure!

Pamir Highway Part II: Khorog – Alichur

Pakistan on the BackgroundSince the M41 was still blocked due to heavy landslide that washed away a big part of the road we continued our way along the Wakhan valley and the Afghanistan border. Here the river bed gets wider and the towering valley walls regularly open for glimpses of the breathtaking panorama on the dramatic, glacier caped Hindu Kush mountain range marking the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Entering the Valley

Occasionally the wider valley here allows the river to form vast sandy beaches on the bank and on an especially hot day, we decided to stop cycling earlier to enjoy a cold bath in the freezing cold waters and the feeling of hot sand between our toes. Although it’s normally forbidden to camp on the Afghan side of the road, we pitched out tent hidden behind a dune and started preparing our daily pasta ration, when suddenly two familiar faces on bicycles passed by! It was a hearty reencounter with Florina and David, the Swiss couple we had met in Istanbul and in Uzbekistan, and they didn’t need much of an invitation to join us on our paradisial white beach. But it shouldn’t take long until our little paradise turned into a sandy hell! Out of a sudden a real squall was catching our tents and within 10 minutes we were in the middle of a sandstorm. The wind was so strong that it was literally blowing our tents away and we had to run for shelter, where we could reinforce our stakes with 10kg stones and start to clean out the sand of every pannier, every layer of clothing, and every fold of our tent and finally finish our sand interspersed dinner.

Natural hot Pool

But the Wakhan Valley was holding also some very pleasant surprises for us. Just in time for Gui’s Birthday we reached the junction to Garam-Chasma, hometown to one of Pamir’s most beautiful hot springs and Tajikistan’s only Las Vegas hotel with rainbow colored lighting all over the façade. And after fighting an incredibly bad road that had more resemblance with a dry river bed than with a street for 10km, we were soaking our tired thighs in a natural pool of boiling mineral saturated water for two days and celebrating his birthday with a huge campfire candle and the best choco-cookies we could find in the local “Magazine”, that offers – like all the other stores along the way – mainly canned sardines, candies, 5kg packages of pasta and shoes. Even the sky was sending Gui a special birthday present in form of a heavy hail storm – quite enjoyable to watch from a warm, cozy bed 🙂

Up to Langar

After Iskashim the occasional bits of rundown asphalt were irretrievably gone and reaching our daily kilometer stint on a road partly washboard, partly completely covered in sand was costing all our energy, physically as well as mentally. Even the constant strong . Since our bikes are clearly not made for those off-road conditions, we had to accept that after Langar, where the … reaches its climax, it was impossible to think of going further and we took a lift to bring us to Alichur and back to the paved (!!) M41.

Pamir Highway Part I: Dushanbe – Khorog

Stream & HindukushLong time no see, long time no say! It’s been quite a while since we’ve had internet access the last time and there is a whole country lying in our wake since our last update! We’ve discovered awesomely dramatic highland landscapes, the marvels of the Wakhan Valley, steaming hot springs, breathtaking lakes and pinnacles and the starkly beautiful “Roof of the World” mountain ranges. But let’s start from the beginning on…

Right after the border crossing we were directly heading to Dushanbe, formerly known as Stalinabad. And the city really lives up to its former name. Tajikistan’s capital has not much to offer except the world’s tallest flag pole (although North Korea is claiming this achievement for itself since some years), a precisely manicured central park and a long, three-lined central avenue that still possesses a collection of pastel-hued, neoclassical buildings from its original Soviet incarnation. But the city’s image has transitioned in the last decade into one of calm, and apparently prosperous, confidence with barely a bullet hole to remind visitors of the bad old days during the civil war in the 90s when armed gangs where controlling the roads and shoot-outs between rival clans were not uncommon. Probably this is not unrelated to the fact that nowadays the majority of the male population is away working in the Russian construction industry, sending back home half of Tajikistan’s official GDP. In general people here seem to be well educated and English is more widely spoken than in Uzbekistan, while the laid-back Ismali form of Islam means that Muslim strictures are generally less widely observed.

Communal Cyclist DinnerAnyway, we had some great days in Dushanbe thanks the famous and cozy Greenhouse hostel (already since hundreds of kilometers cyclists coming in the opposite direction were telling us about this biker meeting point). Together with more than a dozen fellow cyclists, coming or heading to the Pamir Highway, we spent our time enjoying the – coming from Uzbekistan’s dessert like southeast – nearly overwhelming range of groceries, getting our bikes prepared for the most challenging road and weather conditions (bottle cages made out of hand-knitted Pamiri socks included :)) and searching non-existent bike shops in whole Dushanbe. Our days were filled with common – and thanks to Paul and Leiset – delicious intercultural meals, squeezing as much information as possible about every little creek and every pothole out of “Kiwi” Graham (www.grumgoesglobal.com), as well as exchanging one or two horror stories about the road lying ahead of us.

Happy Pamir RidersBut all good things must come to an end and armed with tons of canned food, instant noodles and lot of chocolate we started our Pamir adventure in Qualai-Khumb. The road was leading through a narrow gorge, on your left hand side steep cliffs, the dusty, rocky road in front of you, and to your left the raging current of the Panj river, that represents the border to Afghanistan. The dreaded road conditions weren’t long in coming and after the first enthusiasm we were heavily doubting our choice of taking recumbent bikes for the very first time in our trip (and without spoiling to much: not for the last time in the following weeks).  Unswervingly we were battling our way through, receiving several blue marks from losing balance on sandy gravel 25% climbs (record of our first day: 4 falls for Gui, 2 for Martina).

Just another MountainTherefor the scenery along the way was more than rewarding. The surrounding mountains are like drawn by an aquarelle master, a mix of multiple colors ranging from red, to yellow, to green and blue, with occasional white and black bands, forming surreal patterns on the naked scarps.

OasisScattered icy streams coming from the glacier covered peaks counterpoint the rocky landscape with lush oasis of green and timelessly photogenic rural villages hosted by gold-toothed, white bearded patriarchs in iridescent “jorma” robes.

Sifting Chaff from the Wheat In these rare fertile areas the people use every square meter for farming and you see people harvesting hay on fields so steep that every Tyrolean mountain farmer would be open-mouthed with amazement. Unfortunately most of these crystal clear streams that are such a refreshing temptation in the heat of the midday are contaminated by outsized sheep herds so that we had to take a day off lying sick in our sleeping bags more than once (even Gui’s Indian approved digestive system was unable to breast that).  Fortunately masses of carbon tablets, a spoon of cumin seeds every morning and disgusting bioflorin shots made us fit again to fight the sandy and stony road at 13.6 km/h average speed…

Ready To RumbleAfter a couple of hard first days we reached Khorog, the GBAO’s administrative center and the Pamir’s one real town. Cowering beneath arid, bare-rock peaks, Khorog is not a charming city but it’s the actual starting point for the M41, better known as the Pamir Highway, the world’s second highest altitude international highway, originally built by the Soviet army in the 11930s to facilitate troop transport and provisioning. And for somebody who lived from instant noodles since days, Khorog’s bazar offers a bristling richness on half bad fruits and wizened vegetables – not too forget the live saving oatmeal!