This post covers ‘Part One’ of our adventure cycling in Tajikistan to Dushanbe, and along the ‘M41’ Pamir Highway in a particularly cold October. We have split the blog into two parts: Part Two will cover our route along the M41 road from Khorog to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The article summarises each day on the Pamirs to give a better idea of what it is like to cycle. You can also check out our Pamir Highway video here.
If you’re here because you’re thinking about cycling the Pamir Highway, read on. If not, you can skip this summary. When researching about the Pamir Highway, you will realise there are many different routes. A great article we found useful written by Rolling East can be found here. Our experience is specifically regarding the official M41 Pamir Highway, taking the North road from Dushanbe to Osh. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are breathtakingly beautiful, however, cycling here is challenging and so a moderate level of fitness is required. The best time of year is unquestionably during the harvest in September, when the leaves are turning a vivid yellow. The diet in the Pamirs is basic at best, however there is a good selection of fruit and vegetables during harvest. The people are warm-hearted, particularly in Tajikistan. The drivers are used to cyclists but still drive fast, plus the heavy-goods traffic has resulted in bad road conditions. If you have any questions about this route, please get in touch.
After a much too brief stopover in Samarkand, we headed for the Uzbek-Tajik border. Crossing over into Tajikistan was a very relaxed affair. We got excited seeing a set of scales in the security room, so we each weighed ourselves with our bags. Whilst the weight of our belongings hadn’t changed much, Matt had dropped 3kg and myself 5kg. The slim border guard wanted to join in and laughed at me because I was heavier than him…
We made it to the only hostel in Panjikent - Salom Hostel. We weren’t expecting much but it was a great place ran by Zafia and his family. The breakfast included an amazing rice pudding made by Zafia’s wife. The next day we headed in the direction of Dushanbe, which would be the official starting point for our journey across the Pamir Mountains. We had been building up to this point ever since changing our route in Turkey and couldn’t believe we were so close.
Tajikistan is truly beautiful. People greeted us with warm smiles and waves as we cycled through a string of small villages. Children ran as fast as they could from the fields towards the road to shout hello. Kids in school uniform stuck their hands out to get a high-five, before running away giggling with shyness. The most memorable was a small boy of no more than 4 who stopped us just to shake our hands. It was the warmest welcome to a country that we had received. We spent a nice evening camping in a small forest on a cliff, and were paid a visit by two children on donkeys rounding up their livestock.
The shepherds work hard here and were our wake up call herding their animals up the road early the following morning. We quickly packed up to tackle a big day of climbing and what would be our first Pass in Central Asia. We were met with more beaming smiles and enthusiastic waves. You have to be careful though; some of the cheekier kids stick their hand out for a high-five and do not let go. Climbing up a steep section I got lucky as a truck driver motioned at me to grab onto the back. The truck was going slow enough so I felt in control, but it was much harder than I had anticipated. My legs were tired from steadying the frame and my left arm ached from holding on. I only managed five minutes before I had to let go.
After cycling 74km and 1,875m ascent, we hadn’t made it to the top. We were aware of the infamous 5km long Anzob Tunnel ahead, so we decided to camp just short of it and pass through the next morning. We spoke to a man on a building site about where we could pitch our tent. He gave us permission to camp inside his half-built hotel once the workers had finished for the day, even bringing out a flask of hot tea and bread for us whilst we waited.
The following day turned out to be a day of tunnels. Not as many as the Artvin-Yusufeli stretch in Turkey but close. We completed the 2,600m climb to the tunnel in the early morning and decided to hitch a ride to avoid having to cycle through the aptly nicknamed ‘Tunnel of Death’. The guard helped us flag down two dumper trucks, who lifted our bikes onto the back whilst we piled into the front. The tunnel was pitch black inside and there was so much vehicle pollution that it was impossible to see on-coming traffic. The view on the other side was breathtaking. There were around twenty other tunnels as we descended down the valley on the other side. It was possible to bypass a few tunnels cut into the hillside by cycling around on the right-hand side. The descent into Dushanbe was so scenic along the fast-flowing, turquoise-blue Varzob river.
First impressions upon reaching Dushanbe in the late afternoon: a surprisingly orderly city, clean and more tasteful than I had envisaged. The ‘unlicensed’ taxis are what to watch out for when cycling through the main streets as they tend to crawl in the outer lane, meaning frequent stop-starts on the bike. There is clearly a lot of wealth in the city but we found there wasn’t a huge amount to see. This meant guilt-free hostel rest before we tackled the Pamirs.
We checked into the popular Green House Hostel and meet some German bikers who had just completed the Pamir Highway from the other direction, along the Bartang Valley. We spent the evening chatting about routes over a take-away pizza, which is when we decided to stick to the M41 route. Taking the North road from Dushanbe would provide our ‘gravel fix’. We spent a rest day doing admin, getting a local SIM card and sorting out our bags ready for the next day. To lighten our loads, the hostel kindly arranged for an 8kg package of our stuff to be taken to a hostel at the other end in Osh, Kyrgyzstan for only 50 Som (around £4).
Dushanbe was a good place to stock up on food, however I’d recommend anyone cycling the Pamirs at this time of year to purchase any winter clothes before arriving here. We also found it difficult to draw out money here with a Mastercard, particularly dollars, and most banks will only accept Visa.
Time: 5hr19min | Distance: 49.97miles | Elevation: 4,412 ft
The day had arrived. Matt got the bikes ready whilst I picked up some fresh Tajik bread from the bakery next door. A bakery here consists only of a ‘tanur’ (clay pit oven) with trays of round dough ready to go in. The dough is stuck to the vertical walls inside the tanur for baking and it is delicious. The route out of the city was pretty busy and uninteresting. Drivers pull out all the time, buses overtake only to then pull straight in again causing you to brake suddenly. Due to the recent incident involving a group of cyclists we were also feeling a little on edge about being around so many cars. These feelings were soon put to rest by the generousness of the Tajik people. Sat in a bus shelter eating our lunch, a lady got out of a car packed with family members to hand us a bag of ripe tomatoes. An older man later beckoned us to his van to hand us a big bag of Tajik biscuits.
After 80km we decided to call it a day and chose a place to camp off the road above a grazing field. After we’d eaten, a woman and two small boys came over the hill towards us. As she waited for her boys to herd in their milking cow, she asked if we’d like to come back up to her house for food. She insisted we would be far more comfortable sleeping at her home. We thanked her but assured her that we were okay, having already set up. The boys returned and they tried to convince us to join them. To put their minds at ease, we showed them our cosy set up inside of the tent. She asked me to take the boy’s picture which I did and they laughed happily as I showed them the photo.
Time: 5hr21min | Distance: 42.39miles | Elevation: 3,992 ft
We set off early with the intention of putting in some good distance, after a cyclist we met confirmed there was at least 100km more tarmac. After around 30km however, the road broke down and from that point on it was mixed conditions on mostly rough, dusty tracks. We made slow progress but our spirits were lifted with tea, bread and sweets handed down to us from a lorry driver. We met many more excited kids, but not all them were cute. One boy of no more than six (and clearly the ringleader of his kiddy gang) shouted “Fuck you” at me with a wicked grin before throwing a stone in my direction. Little tw*t.
At around 65km we were feeling pretty exhausted from the slow progress along the gravel tracks, so we decided to start looking for a place to camp. We passed our first checkpoint - no corruption or bribes as we had read, only handfuls of walnuts gifted to us. Shortly after we’d set up a camera shot, Matt decked it. Dust in the cleats is dangerous.
Writhing in pain on the floor and clutching his arm, I rushed over thinking the worst. He quickly jumped up and got back on the bike, clearly pride-wounded. His hand was badly cut and arm grazed, but luckily nothing worse. Later we cleaned up the cuts (first use of the FirstAid kit) and got to laugh at the footage. Laying under the stars that evening was so memorable; the night sky was so clear that you could see the Milky Way. The picture below doesn’t do it justice.
Time: 6hr19min | Distance: 36.34miles | Elevation: 4,380 ft
The generosity of the Tajik people continued. We received bread from a family taking their goods to the local food market to sell, and pomegranates from a man in a car. Matt struggled cycling due to his bruised hand, made worse by the bumpy terrain. We went up a lot and down a lot, so we didn’t gain much in terms of height from where we began in the morning which was a little demotivating.
Two small boys later stopped us to talk. They must only have been about six but they seemed to know more English phrases than the usual “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”. One held onto my handlebars and ran with me for a while. When we stopped at a water tap, the two boys took our bottles and ran to fill them up for us. They even rinsed them out first - little geniuses. We gave them sweets as a thank you. Shortly after, a woman and son in the field below their house brought us a dozen apples but refused any money. This is why you should visit Tajikistan during the harvest.
Time: 4hr30min | Distance: 20.73miles | Elevation: 7,137 ft
Having the wind behind you is alway welcomed but Matt’s bruised hand was still causing him trouble. The road was a mix of tarmac and gravel on a fairly gentle slope. Seeing what I believed to be two other touring cyclists in the distance, I pedalled faster to catch up. We soon realised it was Jules and Milly (@readcycleread) from our hostel in Dushanbe. Matt fell off his bike again as we pulled up to them and bruised the same hand. Luckily Jules knew a trick to loosen the cleats, explaining that they expand in the heat making it harder to unclip.
We decided to cycle together for the rest of the day. It’s amazing how cycling with other people can lift your spirits. Talking with others takes you mind off the usual annoyances you feel on your own. It was a steady uphill on loose gravel for the rest of the day and I managed to get my second puncture of the trip so far (Matt was still at zero). As we were now close to 3,000m, we followed the rule of camping no more than 300m above the previous nights camp to help with acclimatisation.
The view across the mountains was sublime from our camp spot. The experience was complete with high-pitched shouts from the shepherds calling to one another across the valley. After we’d eaten, we were visited by two shepherds who were brothers, who explained that it was a family affair on the mountain. The older brother explained he was one of 12 kids, and had seven children himself; he was only 35. Shortly before sunset, a white converted dumper truck passed by with a GB number plate. I shouted: “You’re British”. With a smile, a head poked out the window and responded: “Pardon?”.
Time: 3hr47min | Distance: 26.16miles | Elevation: 2,355 ft
The four of us set off early the next day with hopes of completing our first pass before lunch. The views were breathtaking and it was great to share it with other cyclists. Compared to the previous few days, the route to the top was not so steep. We made it over the Sagirdasht Pass (3,258m ASL) before lunch, officially the highest point we all had cycled.
On the way down we noticed the white converted dumper truck from the night before parked on the side of the mountain. The driver was Rob from the U.K. who came out for a chat. The impressive vehicle is an ex dumper truck with a mobile post office fitted onto the back. He bought it third hand on his retirement and plans to spend five years driving around the world. We agreed to meet in Kalai Khumb in the evening for a beer.
The descent was pretty tough as the road conditions were mostly gravel and very narrow in parts, although extremely scenic. We were all pretty tired and hungry, so headed straight for the supermarket when we got into town, smashing the confectionary isle. We met Rob for evening beers and chatted about his epic journey and where the hell he had made all his money…
Time: 3hr50min | Distance: 24.97miles | Elevation: 1,479 ft
We set off pretty late the next morning, so we only managed to cover about 40km. It goes dark about 5pm at this time of year which drastically reduces the amount of daylight for cycling. The road was pretty poor again but we were rewarded with a nice camp spot in an orchard. Inquisitive kids from a neighbouring house came over to watch whilst we cooked our dinner and brought us tons of pomegranates. We ended up with around a dozen by the time they got bored.
Time: 6hr20min | Distance: 44.26miles | Elevation: 11,074 ft
A big day in the saddle. With the pomegranates deseeded into containers, we set off in search of bread. Despite this being the easiest staple to find in the main towns, higher up it is impossible to locate. All households bake their own bread, so the best way is to buy straight from the locals. We managed to pick up some from a house and received handfuls of hand-picked figs from their tree as a gift. The day was epic in terms of scenery and distance, covering 68km and climbing 1,000m. Disappointingly, I managed to get my third puncture but was still unable to find the cause. In the afternoon we realised it was both Milly and Jules’ 4-year wedding anniversary and our 4-month anniversary on the road, so we celebrated with some Damson gin from Milly and Jules’ wedding day.
Time: 5hr51min | Distance: 39.30miles | Elevation: 4,362 ft
Biological and mechanical failures let us down. We started well covering ‘20 clicks’ before 9:30am, however Matt had woken in the night with stomach cramps and was struggling all day with no energy. He barely ate which is very unlike him. I got my fourth puncture and Jules a broken spoke. Our spirits were lifted when we cycled past three locals baking fresh bread in a tanur on the roadside. It’s amazing how good fresh, warm bread can make you feel. We cycled separately from Milly and Jules for most of the day so that Matt could take it easy. We joined back up with them in the afternoon to find a place to camp and get an early night.
Time: 5hr18min | Distance: 45.58miles | Elevation: 2,829 ft
Waking up to a flat tyre made for my fourth puncture in six days (five in total on the trip). This time we found the cause: a thin piece of metal that we had to pull out with tweezers. Matt was feeling better so we set off for the day with the big town of Khorog within our sights. The place promised proper food shops, a real bed in a hostel and even a curry house. It was a nice day of cycling, one where the kilometres float by without much effort. The landscape had definitely changed since leaving Kalai Khumb. Autumn had arrived overnight. The trees were a beautiful mix of yellows and oranges. We were awarded with some great stretches of asphalt and the Panj river had calmed, appearing more as a serene lake than a river.
After 73km we had made it to Khorog and we were all ready for a well-earned rest. The city itself was pretty hectic with busy roads and people everywhere. Male presence on the streets continued to outweigh the women, with lots of young men lingering around. The centre was quite polluted with heavy traffic, so it was a relief that Pamir Lodge where we were staying was out of the centre up on the mountain side. We’d heard from other travellers that there was a popular curry house in town and the thought of different cuisine had motivated us to make it to Khorog. We enjoyed an evening with Milly and Jules consuming lots of good curry and local beer.
Time: 0hrs - Rest Day (ill)
Classically, Matt and I had both woken up multiple times in the night with dodgy stomachs. We both agreed it wasn’t food poisoning but possibly the spicy food and alcohol not agreeing with us after a diet of basic food. I decided to make pancakes for the team to take our mind off the stomach upset. Despite the useless hostel kitchen paraphernalia, Milly and I managed to pull together a decent spread. Pancakes made in a casserole pot was a first. In the afternoon my condition worsened, so I spent the rest of the day in bed.
Time: 0hrs - Rest Day (ill)
The following day was a sad one. We had to get left behind by the team due to our continuing funky guts. I was feeling worse and had a severely aching back with hot and cold sweats. We did manage to venture to the shop to stock up on food with the intention of setting off the next day.
More sick of the inside of our room than generally sick, we bit the bullet and got the bikes ready to leave Khorog. The only downside was a cold weather spell had kicked in and we were expecting to see some snow on the journey ahead. We weren’t quite prepared for what was actually in store... B
More on this in the next blog…
Current Stats (as of 08.10.18):
Total days cycled: 104/127
Total rest days: 23
Total distance completed: 6,575 Km
No. of punctures: Becky 5 - Matt 0