This post covers ‘Part Two’ of our journey cycling the official M41 Pamir Highway, from Khorog to Osh. If you haven’t already, you can first read ’Part One’ of our story here, covering our route from Dushanbe to Khorog. If you’re planning to cycle it yourself, check out our summary in Part One. You can also watch our video documenting our experience here. We completed the journey in a particularly cold October.
Time: 4hr52min | Distance: 36.87miles | Elevation: 3,536 ft
Getting back on the bikes after two days off with illness may have been a bad idea. We hadn’t fully regained our strength, making the increasingly cold weather and steep mountains even more challenging. Our first stop was the ATM in town. We read that Khorog was the only place you could get money out on the Pamirs. It turned out to be extremely difficult here too, with only one ATM in the whole town with money in. Imagine the queues… Luckily the crowd of locals waved me to the front and I managed to get cash out to “oooh”ing and “aahh”ing from my audience.
We proceeded slowly on up into the now snow-capped mountains. Unexpectedly in the afternoon, a truck stopped us to offer to give us a lift. We turned down the offer, which we soon regretted as it turned bitterly cold. I was exhausted by the afternoon still without an appetite, so we called it a day, settling on a field next to a collection of houses for our camp spot. It’s always safer to camp by people as long as you ask for permission first. Both families came out to convince us to sleep inside but we insisted that we’d be warm enough in the tent. The temperature had noticeably dropped since we’d last camped but we were warm once inside our sleeping bags.
Time: 3hr37min | Distance: 43.81miles | Elevation: 3,746 ft
After a couple hours of cold riding, a lorry stopped us again to ask if we wanted a lift. This hadn’t happened at all in Central Asia up until now. It felt like a sign after the day before and my feet were like blocks of ice once again, so we accepted. We asked to be taken to Jelondi about 20km away where we hoped to catch up with Jules, Milly (@readcycleread), Seb and Harry (@awisemanstour) to join in the climb over the Koitezek pass.
The journey was certainly memorable. I sat on the bunk with the driver’s mate and Matt sat in the passenger seat. It was an extremely rough ride. The seats and gear stick even had their own air suspension. The driver however didn’t waste time in stopping to buy a litre bottle of beer (it was 11:00am). He was drinking and smoking the whole way, and playing on his phone. We were of course offered beer and they refused to accept a no, saying: ‘Like lemonade’. The lorry pulled over around 7km short of Jelondi so that the guys could take a shower. Quietly relieved, we thanked them and cycled the rest of the way through the beautiful landscape.
Jelondi is a small town known for its hot springs. In the cold weather however we didn’t fancy stripping down to our undies. Jules had messaged and realising they were quite a bit further ahead of us, we decided to cycle on and set up camp early to acclimatise ourselves. At 3,651m ASL, it was officially our highest camp spot to date. The sheltered spot was a sort of crater within the landscape, which we loved. That was, until the morning.
Time: 5hr24min | Distance: 34.92miles | Elevation: 2,992 ft
What would be the hardest day of my life (melodramatic, I know) had arrived. We woke early - 1:30am, then 4:30, then 6:00am. It was extremely cold and I could see my own breath. Feeling the water bottles inside the tent, I realised they were frozen. Lifting up the side of the tent all I could see was a blanket of white snow. The ‘cold spell’ had definitely arrived.
When we started up the pass things started to get challenging. It wasn’t so much the incline, we’d climbed steeper. It was the inability to get a good grip on the snow, particularly on the unsealed gravel track. My energy was rapidly depleting, which was exaggerated by my front mud guard getting clogged up with snow making it hard to pedal.
When we made it to the top of the Koitezek Pass (4,270m), I didn’t even realise. There was no sign saying “Congratulations, you did it.” Matt and I weren’t on the best of terms having argued our way up to the top. To make matters worse, it started to snow and I fell badly on my leg after being unable to unclip (cue the tears). My feet were still giving me trouble. It was the only part of my body not managing to warm up. Matt was also struggling to warm his hands up having lent me his warm mittens. Just when we thought we might actually be in trouble, we spotted a deserted building ahead. It was the first building we’d seen since Jelondi, so we pulled in.
After knocking on a door, a confused lady and daughter opened up. We gestured that we desperately needed to warm up and she beckoned us inside. Their modest home consisted of two small rooms connected by an open doorway. The room we were in had a stove and a raised platform for sitting and eating; the connecting room was where they slept. A man then entered after being fetched by his daughter and he welcomed us to sit. Noticing Matt was struggling with his hands in the warmth, he brought in a bucket of cold water to warm them up slowly. We were brought a pot of tea, loaves of bread and a plate of biscuits, but their generosity didn’t stop there. They collected all of our wet gloves, socks and shoes and placed them on the warm stove to dry off. When our bodies had thawed, we reluctantly headed back out to cycle to the next homestay for the night.
We pulled into the yard of the only building for miles around an hour later. A man stepped outside to greet us and agreed that we could stay. We sat down inside opposite the stove whilst his teenage daughter brought in a small table covering it with bread, butter, biscuits and a big pot of hot tea, and a huge pile of noodles. It was as if they’d been expecting us. The lady of the house sat quietly in the window watching us with her young grandson. We were ready for sleep pretty soon after eating, so the daughter grabbed a torch and lead us into a cold, dark room next door. She made up a bed for us on the floor out of thick quilts and despite the temperature, once inside the quilts it felt like a luxury hotel…
Time: 5hr31min | Distance: 50.80miles | Elevation: 1,880 ft
I didn’t sleep well due to a persistent ringing in my ear, presumably an effect from the altitude. We had breakfast with our host, which consisted of bread dipped in yak milk tea with a separate helping of black tea on the side. Warning: Don’t come to Tajikistan for the food. We paid the 100 Somoni (less than £5pp) for the bed and food, and set off for the next town of Alichur.
After yesterday’s hell, the Pamirs delivered blue skies and a magical scenery. We arrived in Alichur before 10am and found the only ‘cafe’ to warm up in by the stove. Once back on the bikes, we saw two cyclists ahead - unmistakably Jules and Milly. We had a happy reunion, then spent the day cycling together. The wind was behind us, the sun was shining and the Neizatash Pass was very gentle (4,129m ASL) in comparison to the previous day.
Too cold to camp, we headed to the nearest hamlet after the Pass to rest for the night. We received a warm welcome from our hosts and were lead into our own room at the back. Unlike the previous night where the open landscape doubled up as a toilet, tonight’s homestay had an outhouse (a hole in the floor) and a locked room for all of our bikes. The yak yogurt they served with dinner was delicious - just like fresh natural yoghurt. Laughing at photos together from the last few very cold and challenging days made it all seem worth it.
Time: 5hr14min | Distance: 54.29miles | Elevation: 1,570 ft
After a final day cycling together, we had to say goodbye to ‘Jilly’ as they headed for China. Up next for us was the infamous Ak Baital Pass (4,655m). We cycled the remote plateau together and then sadly went our separate ways in Murghab after stocking up on sugary food at the only shop open. The scenery was breathtaking leaving Murghab, as was the cold. An unfriendly headwind greeted us, making the long straight road seem to stretch out for miles ahead. We set up camp around 30km before the Ak Baital Pass, hoping to make the summit and down to a hostel tomorrow afternoon.
Time: 5hr37min | Distance: 33.49miles | Elevation: 2,609 ft
Battling it out for ‘the most challenging day so far’ title is Day 17. The road from Murghab to just short of the Pass was a sealed, gently-inclining road making it seem like a piece of cake compared to the Koitezek Pass. We were blessed with warm sunshine and blue skies, with the snow only appearing on the road just short of the Pass. The final stretch was undoubtedly challenging on a mix of snow, sludge and mud. I got to the top of the Ak Baital Pass (4,655m) eventually, with regular breaks and some hyperventilating. The amount of ice at the top made the celebratory photographs almost impossible without decking it (which Matt did a couple of times much to my amusement).
The road on the descent didn’t get much sunshine as the road was covered in black ice, causing us to fall numerous times. Reaching the bottom a lady in a passing Land Rover warned us that there was no accommodation until Karakul. This contradicted the annotated map we had been relying on and ruined our plans for a cosy night in a hostel. NB: All of the yurt ‘hostels’ pack up for the winter leaving you with fewer accommodation options.
We had to deal with excruciating ‘washboard’ road, which was almost unbearable with a pounding altitude headache, before reaching the next house. This was the first shelter we had seen since the start of the pass. Our host, Zumurat, made us spaghetti with potatoes, tea and bread in her beautifully warm living room.
The stove took pride of place as usual, and the only electricity was one light bulb connected to a car battery. The sleeping arrangements were interesting; all three of us slept in the main room on single beds made from blankets; Matt in the furthest corner away from Zumurat.
Time: 1hr57min | Distance: 23.49miles | Elevation: 571 ft
I didn’t sleep too well again. This time: too hot. Yak shit really does produce some heat. Zumurat, bless her, turned the light on a number of times in the night to stoke the fire. Breakfast consisted of - you guessed it - yak milk tea and bread. Whilst I’m grateful for a hot meal, I won’t be bringing this delicacy back to England.
A short day’s cycle skirting along the border with China brought us to the next town of Karakul. My immediate thought cycling into the town was: “How did we end up here?”. This place, likewise with Murghab and Alichur, had to be the furthest extremity from life back home. The town - a loose scattering of white painted, single storey buildings - sits on the edge of Lake Karakul, and in winter it’s a very windy, desolate place, but somehow life is sustained here. The only man outdoors, Mohammed, directed us to his place, Homestay Aigerim. We warmed up with a pot of tea and endless plates of biscuits whilst he started on the fire in our room.
Spending the afternoon walking around the town made us feel even further away from home. We craved vegetables and went on the hunt but all we found was a ‘cafeteria’ - a hatch in the wall of a room - which served watery soup containing small chunks of some kind of meat, one carrot and one potato.
Time: 5hr11min | Distance: 34.73miles | Elevation: 2,111 ft
Unexpectedly, today would turn out to be our last day cycling the Pamir Highway. Just when we thought we’d had our fair share of snow, we attempted to cross over into Kyrgyzstan.
The first Pass (Uy Buloq, 4,232m) was without snow on the road. A land cruiser even stopped by us to hand us each a Snickers. The next Pass (Kizil Art Pass, 4,336m) would see us crossing into our 17th country since leaving home. There was a painful stretch of washboard before the climb. Then came the snow, which gradually increased in depth until we had to get off and push. We made it to the Tajikistan border crossing for a double round of passport checks, before we had to push on to the top of the Pass in 'No Mans Land’.
The descending road was worse than the black ice after Ak Baital. Almost at the bottom we spoke to a man pointlessly distributing grit onto the path. He gestured to his homestay at the bottom if we wanted a place to stay. Stupidly we had left ourselves with only a single $100 bill, and no local currency as we expected to have made it to the next town. His wife invited us inside and prepared us tea and snacks despite the fact we had no money. When the husband returned, we explained our situation and he agreed for us to pitch our tent in his barn next door. It was so cold in the barn we may as well have camped directly on the snow.
At a moment of pure despair, the universe delivered. We were setting up the tent when I heard a vehicle coming down the mountain. I ran outside to see an old Soviet truck stop outside the house. I shouted and pointed repeatedly: “Velosipet, Sary Tash?”. It was the first truck we had seen all day and the driver was more than happy to take us down. We packed up the tent, loaded the bikes onto the truck and jumped into the cab, then realising there was already four grown men sat inside.
We had asked to be dropped either below the snow-line or in the next town, Sary Tash, after the official border crossing into Kyrgyzstan not too far away. Little did we know of the snow storm on its way. When we eventually made it to Sary Tash, the driver ignored our request and ploughed on through, gesturing to the blizzard increasing in severity. Asking where we were headed, the driver responded: “To my house, Osh”. We shrugged at each other and accepted: this was the end of the Pamir Highway for us.
The 200km journey took 13-hours in the heavy snow, with a pit stop for dinner. The hairy journey included tyre chains, broken windscreen wipers and sliding down the switch-backs over Taldyk Pass (3,515m). We arrived into Osh at 4am, so the driver kindly let us stay at his house before heading into the city the following morning. Having suffered from the rough drive, I embarrassingly vomited out the window of our room at our driver’s house.
In the morning we met the whole family over an amazing breakfast made by Кушбак’s wife; no yak products in sight. The boys helped us to recover our bikes from the truck, which had regrettably been left there overnight and were covered in snow and dirt. We said our heartfelt goodbyes and rode 20km to a hostel in Osh. Despite being four times the price of a dorm, we treated ourselves to a private room, and the first thing we did was shower after a record ten days without.
The following fews days in Osh largely consisted of trying to regain strength and rebalance our gut, within the confines of our room. Collectively we’d lost 5kg in weight since leaving Dushanbe and we were ready to eat our way back to health. We met up with Emil (@theoddtrip) and devoured only Western food and lots of Netflix. Civilisation felt unbelievably good. After almost two weeks we were blessed with a solid stool... Another four weeks later (60 days in total) I finally got my period - sorry male readers. Here’s to being human again… B
Current Stats (as of 18.10.18):
Total days cycled: 114/137
Total rest days: 23
Total distance completed: 7,090 Km
Pamir Highway: 90hrs in the saddle, 1,050km distance, 18,672m total elevation