I am wondering what all the hoo-ha is about these here Pamir Mountains, unlike the European Alps they are a touch beige and yet they are possibly the most cycled long haul tour route for cyclists the world over. Not realising the popularity of the Pamir Highway I thought to cycle here would leave me alone, exposed to people and the elements. I had never even heard of it until picking it out at random thinking it looked like a cool route, I’ll be able to casually drop in conversation “this one time in Tajikistan.” Having now past over twenty, yes twenty, cyclists since leaving Dushanbe, me and every other sod it seems are here.
There are no steep alpine assents with a dizzying number of hairpin bends, nor is there a fondue with a nice glass of red at the end of a tough day. So what do people come here for then? It is certainly not the food, people come here it seems for the altitude, to cycle the roof of the world; the heighest pass in the European Alps is the Col de l’Iseran, France, at 2770m but here you will reach the lung deflating altitudes of over 4000m for days at a time on one the highest plateau’s on earth.
Being some what uninspired I continue my journey through Tajikistan. The first climb sees me cresting the Koitezek Pass at 4274m, that’s a new record for me but it is only the beginning and my lungs are working like a set of old bellows with a hole in them somewhere. Once at the top a wind that wouldn’t be out of place in the Artic comes in chilling gusts squeezing what ever heat I have left in my already numb extremities; I am tempted to stop and rummage for my dusty warm kit but this would be a mistake for it was just making itself known, it stops as suddenly as its started; the sun then does its thing and smooth’s out the goose bumps. I reach the town of Murghab and set up shop for the night, writing in the journal, “what a day!”
The Pamirs have won me over. No they are not as pretty as the Alps, instead they are on a different scale, rugged, changeable and perhaps unpredictable. A Frenchie that I got chatting to said that “there is no scale for beauty” (bloody romantic Frenchman or just bastardising a cliché) but I would place these Pamirs at the western limits of the Himalayas, up there on this none existent scale. It is changing kaleidoscope of landscapes reminding me of a four by four trip I took in south west Bolivia and the Salar de Uyuni . Crest a slight rise, climb a moraine or simply turn a corner and you are in a different world from that of five minutes before.
After topping out on the plateau at about 4000m I am surrounded by a wide open valley with a delta of cold mountain rivers feeding thick green grass dotted with purple and yellow flowers; over a moraine and I’m descending into a scorched dip, at first you might think there is snow on the ground but the soil is rich with hard white crusts of salt and in the basin sits a series of deep blue lakes with white salt beaches, barely a blade of dry brown grass can grow here; up and over and I make my way through rolling hillocks; turn right and I’m confined my towering cliffs then stop on a grass plane at a Yurt for a pot of tea and a bowl of Yak yogurt (it is surprisingly good). All the while you are surrounded by snow and ice caped peaks which run nearly the length of the Asian continent.
I thought the Pamirs might disappoint, I was mistaken, for most of my time riding through this colossal landscape it has just been me with the marmots for company; hours can go by without seeing a single vehicle, hut or house, or yurt. Life up here is completely removed from the stir of the outside world, I do find myself wondering what the bloody hell drives people to live here? A misanthropists society or a bunch of marmot lovers; the little blighters wont stay still long enough for me to take a picture. They make bird like calls as I approach and looking like furry, ginger pillows they dart for cover.
I can feel the altitude, not just in the old pipes, but in a dull throbbing head ache behind my eye sockets that and I had a slight nose bleed. I’m in for the big pass today but the Frenchman only went and jinxed the weather, saying “it looks great out there,” and that “we are in for a beautiful day.” Twat.
He was right at first, it was lovely, it was just me and the moving ginger pillows as I make my way up the valley. Unfortunately we were joined by the weather. Up to this point in this venture I have not really had to contest with an unpredictable environment; sure in the African wet season it rained but it was rarely worse than tepid and you dried out in the afternoon sun pretty sharpish and in the desert so long as you knew where you next watering hole was life was alright; but looking at the clouds gathering in the distance I think to myself that I may have to hunker down in my tent and ride the weather out if all goes Pete Tong. Its exposed and although its summer it undoubtedly can take a sudden turn for the worst taking any unfortunate cyclists unaware. The marmots retreat to their warm burrows and I stick out like a sore thumb in this treeless expanse as a squall of nipple hardening, dry, cold wind sweeps me sideways.
This climb isn’t going to be as pleasant as I had thought, the executive decision to rug up is made and the only skin on display is that of my furrowed brow. Flurries of snow reduce the visibility and the temperature, I don’t fancy camping out here. I’ve had a good weather window so far but the gods just decide to give me a taster of how bleak life can be up here in the mountains shadow. No wonder the locals all look like they are made of leather. After a few hours I look back and it looks grey to say the least, I don’t envy the others who set off at a leisurely pace, I seem to be ahead of the worst of it.
Now my all accounts I must be pretty fit by now, but I feel like a 90 year old with emphysema as I make the final push to the top. I flitter between pushing my bike, leaning over the handle bars and slowly cycling, just so I am say I’ve cycled to the top. I’m moving at the pace of a snail who has popped a Valium as I reach the Ak Baital pass at 15292ft (it sounds more impressive in feet – 4665m). I’m told that from here you can, if you know where to look, you can see china (that’s no surprise as I’ve been following its fenced border for an hour), Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan; India is pretty damn close to, but that’s if you aren’t head down and ruddy freezing. There is no hanging around up here its cold and windy plus I’ve got the reward of a good cruise down hill to Lake Karakul. Oh how sorely mistaken I was, the wind is the sort which means you have to pedal down hill, and hard, I cant feel my fingers, and the road surface is ball breaking.
That evening I sit in the bath house of a home stay soaking my chilblained toes in a bowl of scolding hot water heated by a wood stove; my cheeks and nose are red with wind burn, I’ve cleaned the snot out of my moustache and my body is radiating heat like after a hard days skiing on those alpine slopes of Europe. There is no fondue waiting for me but I will be more than happy with what ever stodge is put in front of me so long as it is followed by a warm bed.
I’ve had but a taster of what life must be like for the people living in these mountains, it is a vast wilderness the likes of which we normally only see on a film set or in documentaries and it is safe to say that it has exceeded my expectations.