Part 2: Gorno Badakhshan Region (East Tajikistan)
On this second part i write about the daily adventures starting in the Eastern part of the Pamirs. I decided to split it to have a more clear overview over the Wakhan corridor. Khorog lies at an altitude of around 2100 meters altitude and from here on we would rise up to a plateau and I am adding the altitude we slept every night on this part.
First day leaving Khorog started late but still managed to ride out and started going slightly up on surprisingly good asphalt. This fun ended not long after leaving Khorog as it was back to business with craters and washboard roads. We were loaded with enough food. On the right side of us we had the Panj river for the following days . Camp was set at an altitude of 2236 meter.
Food is scarce in the Wakhan so we were loaded with oats and powdered milk for breakfast. Surrounded by local kids we were packing while Dan tried to gain their attention by playing on his guitar (Yes he travels with a small guitar) This day we managed to score bread at a Wakhan farmer. During cycling we stumbled on an open hot spring. The water was relatively warm and clean. Eventhough it was a bit early to camp we decided to stay here for the night and had a proper shower. This night we slept at 2386 meter altitude.
While packing in the morning we met Steffen and Claudia (A German couple travelling with a 4×4 caravan) and spent a few moments with them. The moment we reached Ishkashim we thought of eating in a restaurant and shopping again for some food but soon we realized it was Sunday and there was only a small mini market open. Ishkashim is a border town with Afghanistan and the biggest town in the Wakhan corridor. Here the road turns from south to east and you have an amazing view to the hindu kush area across the border. We tried to get food from a guesthouse outside of Ishkashim and accepted what he had.. Potatoes with carrots and bread with yoghurt. Our expectations were very low already for the Wakhan so this was completely fine. The owner had marco polo sheep horns wandering around and he sold William one but they are so big and heavy you think twice before taking it. They saw it in half to make it lighter. We stopped at a ruin to call it a day and slept on 2642 meter altitude.
Until now we were having mostly asphalt roads. Not always in good condition cause sometimes you have to dodge craters to prevent breaking spokes but this ends today. Gravel roads and washboard are welcoming us again with occasionally pushing bikes forward, so roads are getting worse. The day we left Khorog we were with Daniel (Germany) but this day we joined Marc (Swiss) and Bas (Dutch) They went hiking for 2 days and we caught up with them around Bibi Fatim hot spring. There are a few cyclists in the Wakhan corridor at this point and it’s always fun to share stories. Altitude: 2723
This was the day we leave the village area and will be heading into uninhabited part of the Wakhan. There were a few villages on the road and we scouted for some markets on the road. We would say the Panj river goodbye and welcome the Pamir river. Since food in the Wakhan corridor is quite limited, fresh fruits are not available, vegetables are limited to onions and potatoes. We all stocked up on basic food and gasoline to cook for 9 days. The idea was to also visit the Zorkul lake and camp for a few days. In Langar (last village) we had lunch and started on the steepest climb until then. In 2,8 km we gained 223 meters altitude on sand and gravel roads. Loaded on food some of us had to push the bikes on some parts. Temperature dropped a few degrees when we got above 3000 meters. It was a cold night at 3030 meter altitude but the terrain and surroundings became amazing!
Cold morning and the terrain was rough. We got a first taste here with a bit height-sickness, fierce winds, intense sun and difficult roads. Our average was about 6 km per hour. It was amazing though! Breathtaking views..Only people we saw were some farmers and maybe 3 or 4 cars. All the farmers are going the opposite way. Most of them walk for days into the mountains with their herd of sheep, goats and cows. Now they were all going down because the winter is coming. This way they try to save the grass on lower grounds for winter. Some of them were asking us for paracetamol. In the beginning we did not understand why but sometimes they also asked if we have vodka. Then we realized they need the paracetamol against the hangover headaches. Just before setting camp we met the German camper-van couple again and they joined us for the night. At 3560 meter altitude it was a very cold night but we made a little party with campfire. Around the campfire we got company of Dan, Claudia and Steffen with their guitars.
This day was baptized as the push to Khargush. It was definitely the hardest day of the whole Wakhan corridor and we made only about 40 km. We got fresh (raw) milk and butter from a cow herder in the morning and celebrated Marc’s bday. The road was very sandy, steep at times and bad.. It was very frustrating and the headwinds were not friendly. The goal was to reach the military checkpoint at Khargush and we got there just before dark. It became freezing cold as the night set down. The military guys offered a shed where we could sleep. There was no electricity and when we entered there were 3 guys who moved out to let us in. It was a stinkhole! Rats were crawling inside and the smell was almost unbearable. After cooking (on cow-poop) we decided to sleep inside but me and William went to sleep close to the door to get some fresh air. At 3870 meter altitude it felt a little hard to breathe. In the meantime Williams started to experience problems with his chain again. Same problem with the supposedly new chain and we were doubting if we would continue to the Zorkul lake cause we would have a big problem if the chain breaks there.
William cleaned the chain in the morning and oiled chain again but this was not convincing enough for him. He decided to not continue to Zorkul and I respect his decision. The risk is too big because it is very deserted. We would go north but the rest (Bas, Daniel and Marc) will continue east to Zorkul. We gave them some of our food supplies because we would go to a little town called Alichur. First we need to cross a pass over 4200 meter high. It was quiet and scenic to see one of the highest lakes in the world. It gave a mixed feeling, it sad because we would miss the Zorkul lake but on the other hand it felt good going back to ‘society’. We were naive enough to think we can get water on the way but we ran out of water going down the pass cause there was no stream. Luckily for us some tourist car passed and they handed us water after asking. Then suddenly there was smooth black asphalt. This was euphoric! We reached the M41 and cycled along the Issykul lake to Alichur. We were out of the Wakhan corridor and the challenge was a great experience. By this time we did not have a proper shower for about a week. Aichur has no running water and no electricity. The population there of about 1800 people get water from the streams and some houses have solar panels which gives limited electricity. We checked into a guesthouse and had a funny shower. It was basicly two buckets. One with cold water and one with boiling hot water. Mix them and pour it over your body. It felt like being in a hotel at that moment. People there seem to show lots of happiness and appreciation. The toilet is outside and is a hole in the ground. Going to the toilet is not a fun thing around midnight cause it is freezing cold. Alichur is at 3863 meter altitude.
The next day we took a day off and stayed another day to recover and eat well. By this time we lost quite some weight. Don’t know exactly how much but that didn’t matter anymore. We walked around the town but there’s not much to do till we saw some yaks grazing. Interesting and tough animals, they look so strong and live on high grounds only. People live very simple in Alichur and the place is very quiet. A dutch man arrived at the same guesthouse that evening. Onno cycled with us in Iran and Uzbekistan already. That night we got fish on the menu with Yak butter which is a luxury.
After passing by the supermarket and pumping water out of the well we got on our bikes to cycle all the way to Murghab. The legs feel good and so were the roads. Not much happened on the road, little climbing but mostly downhill all the way to Murghab. In Murghab we met Greg. A polish motorcyclist and he was able to speak Russian. This was easier to communicate at the guesthouse. He started in Poland and went all the way to Mongolia and now he was on his way back through the Stans. Murghab has a population of 4000 people and has electricity for 3 hours per day and no running water. Most of the population is Kyrgiz and life seems hard here. The bazaar consist of old shipping containers and not much can be found here cause everything has to be imported. It is also not a cheap town to be in. Altitude this night was 3630.
After William cleaned his chain again we decided to leave around noon. The chain was still holding on. In the morning I checked out the bazaar and some places but Murghab is not a town you want to stay very long in my opinion. There is also a very high pass we got to go over to reach Karakul (Last town before Kyrgyzstan). The road is going up slightly but there was a lot of headwind. A German man we encountered on the road told us about a ruin where you can camp. It was a perfect shelter against the wind. Altitude was 4017
Personally being above 4000 meter was hard. You adjust easily to the height but I wasn’t used to being out of breath this easy. This day was a day to suffer. The Ak-Baital pass (4655 meter) lays just about 30 km further away but first there s a climb of more than 600 meter. The last 3 km the road becomes steep and head wind makes it a challenge. I think we were moving about 3 km per hour average on this part. Walking some parts was not rare. It was very cold at the top. I had 5 layers of clothing on. Once on the pass we cold not believe we reached a highlight on our trip. We were also happy to go down on one of the worst descends. Going down went slow but we cycled till we reached the Karakul lake. We met Rae there, a British female cyclist who is almost 2 years on the road. She camped with us at 3984 m altitude.
Next morning we split up because she was heading into the opposite direction. We forgot to put our water bottles inside so everything was frozen! The road looks endless. Karakul lake is a very big lake and there is a small town on the side with the same name. With a maximum width of 52 km we had to go around it to exit the Pamir mountain range. Cycling in stretched lands for hours and with a view over the lake. We tried to score some food in Karakul town but cookies were the only thing we could buy. After the first pass leaving the karakul lake the clouds clustered and wind went raging. We walked up the pass and going down was really slow. We decided to camp behind a sand dune for shelter at an altitude of 4037 meters. We made sure we were in the tent before dark cause the wind was furious.
After midnight things got quiet after the wind stopped and it was the coldest night so far. This time we had our water bottles inside the tent but some started to form ice on the edges. There was only one last pass to cross at the border and then don into no-mans land to the border of Kyrgyzstan. The road was not as bad anymore and the climb to the border was smooth. Getting out of Tajikistan was very easy. After the guard noticed that coffee had spilled all over in the pannier I opened he was not interested anymore. Just a little further as the Kyzyl-art pass of 4280 meter and after this was a descend of almost 1000 meter to the Kyrgyzstan border. The kyrgyz were not interested at all in our stuff so we continued after getting a stamp to Sary-Tash. A small town where we checked into a guesthouse to spend a night. Altitude: 3183 meter.
William’s chain was so bad we were afraid it was gonna break this day. After cleaning and oiling it we set off for a big climb. On the downhill we met a lot of cyclist this day going the opposite direction. About 11 in total in different groups. There was a lot of downhill and it was going smooth until William stopped and was telling he cannot continue. His chain was getting stuck in his chain rings and skipping the whole time. The problem was that the connectors get stuck and the chain doesn’t bend anymore. When we took a good look we noticed his chainrings and derrailler-pulleys are worn out! This mad it all worse. Standing by the road after a little town we decided to hitchhike to Osh. We arrived at the guesthouse after dark and met up with a lot of cyclists again. This was also the end of the Pamir highway at 800 meter altitude
Having experienced the Pamirs like this and witnessing how the people there live was an experience. Because of the altitude and dry climate almost nothing grows there. Everything has to be imported.
In the Wakhan corridor on the other hand everybody grows their own crops and has domestic animals. The altitude is a little bit lower than Pamir but life is still hard. Roads are bad and makes transportation a challenge. Everything is more expensive than the rest of Tajikistan. This give a lot of appreciation to (for us simple) things like electricity and running water. In whole Tajikistan they speak 5 different languages (Tajik, Wakhan, Pamir, Bartang and Russian) and English is not one of them. Communication has been difficult so we taught ourselves some basic Russian words. Life there can be beautiful because the scenery is spectacular and the people very hospitable but includes hard labour.
In Kyrgyzstan we would not cycle but rest and order some new parts for William’s bycicle. Proper parts were not available in Osh or Bishkek (Capital Kyrgyzstan) Our mom was visiting together with the girlfriends.
The initial plan was to apply for our Chinese visa in Bishkek but many tried before us and we noticed it was impossible to get a Chinese visa outside of your home country. We don’t own a second passport which I highly recommend now on a trip like this. After we noticed this plan is not going to work we booked flights to Hong Kong to apply for a Chinese visa there. Some cyclist had luck with this earlier this year. We heard China is not liking it when people have been in Turkey and we were there for 5 weeks. After we got information that cyclists got rejected in Hong Kong too for Turkish stamps in their passports we decided to cancel the flights to Hong Kong and skip China completely. Bangkok it is going to be and we will cycle southeast Asia till Singapore instead.
We also have a new member joining us and the discussion mentioned earlier was about this.. Mishally is joining us in Bangkok on our cycling trip.
Here are some more pictures..