Crossing The Pamirs
For Luke Douglas and Flora Hodson, what started as a tour around New Zealand turned into a ride all the way back home to the UK. In this story, Luke recounts the time they spent riding through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikstan on the Pamir Highway. Read on for their story of late-season riding in the Pamirs, Central Asian hospitality, and looming wolf encounters…
Words and photos by Luke Douglas (@lukejdouglas)
Flora and I became fascinated by the Pamir Highway shortly after starting a tour of New Zealand as fairly naive 26 year olds. That tour eventually morphed into a plan to pedal all the way back home to England. Once we’d sweated our way up Australia, taken a short flight to East Timor, and continued through Indonesia, we arrived in Singapore. There, we checked into the Tree Inn Lodge, a hostel for cyclists run by amiable chap called SK. We told him our plan was to ride north and then turn left at some point, towards Europe.
Looking mildly horrified at the vagueness of our plan, SK sat us down with a teh tarik – a hot milk tea – and told us to listen carefully. Drawing from an encyclopedic knowledge of the world of bicycle touring, kept current by the hundreds of tourers he hosts every year, he went though our options. Long story short, visa, weather, safety, and time restrictions all considered, the only feasible (and enticing, if not somewhat terrifying) option was to try to ride though China, into Kazakhstan and attempt to cross Central Asia’s Pamir Highway. The main catch being that we would need to cross it before winter set in, which, on our current timescale, would be a close-run thing.
More commonly known as the Pamir Highway, the M41 traverses the Pamir Mountains, winding through some of the world’s most difficult to spell countries: Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It is the only continuous route through an incredibly rugged region, built to supply most remote parts of what was then the Soviet Union. Alluringly referred to as the ‘roof of the world,’ it is the second highest international highway in the world, topping out at 4,655m. Only the Karakorum Highway to the south is higher, at 4,717m. The origin of the route goes back to some of the earliest connections of East to West, forming part of the ancient Silk Road network. Road conditions vary from paved, to neglected, to heavily damaged by earthquakes, erosion, and landslides. The exact start/finish points are up for debate but are commonly agreed to be Dushanbe or Khorog, Tajikistan, in the west and Osh, Kyrgyzstan, in the east.
In the depths of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, there’s an option to veer off the official M41 and detour along a dirt road infamous in cycling circles for its rim-shattering, fork-snapping roughness. The Wakhan corridor is notoriously tough, known for the amount of heroin trafficked along it, good for spectacular views of the Hindu Kush, and home to the legendarily hospitable Pamiri people.
As SK explained it, “If you can make suitable adaptations to your bikes, find a way to cope with the the altitude, extreme remoteness, unpredictable weather, and the series of notoriously complicated, date-dependent visas and associated permits, you just might make it to Dushanbe.
Luck and judgement
Over the next five months, the M41 was always on our minds. We sought out tidbits of information, passed down via the cyclotourist grapevine. What’s the permit situation? Is the road blocked? How late did people get through last year? Through a combination of luck and judgment, we found ourselves in Osh in mid-October, technically just early enough. We’d lucked out and acquired some cold weather kit from a couple cycling the other way, happy to lighten their load as they headed south. We also picked up some chunkier Schwalbe 26” Mondial tyres from a hostel in Bishkek, as well as some maps, traded for ours of China and SE Asia. Our set up wasn’t perfect, but it was the best we could piece together.
Osh was hot. Men ate kebabs, played chess, and drank chai. Young ‘uns kept the aging Soviet amusement park in business and women seemed to do everything else. Unable to bear any more forewarnings on how cold/windy/remote/rough the next few weeks would be, we filled all available space with fresh foods and then squashed them all by cramming in as many expired Snickers bars as would fit. We’d read accounts of gangs of 10+ tourers passing through in the summer months. Likely to be two of the last cyclists of the season season, we finally started our assault on the Pamir Highway.
We made it an emphatic 32 km before noticing we were being chased by some ominous clouds, and were ushered inside by a man aggressively selling apples. His granddaughters restyled Flora’s hair, and I was given apple peeling lessons. The pressure dropped overnight, and despite having sweated out of Osh, we woke up to a thick mist and the first snow of the season. We weren’t going anywhere, and weren’t arguing. We finally left 24 hours later, full winter riding spec donned and apples spilling from our pockets. After two days of steady climbing, practicing our (in)ability to layer correctly, we received an invitation to spend the night in a yurt. There was a bit of a family do on, and three sheep had been slaughtered to celebrate, whose entrails we spent the night uncomfortably close to. We learnt that once boiled, sheep ear can be generously sliced and forced upon new guests, and is best washed down with vodka.
We spent Flo’s birthday snowed into a little room in a spectacularly be-carpeted hotel in Sary Tash with a bottle of wine that tasted like toilet cleaner. The first snow a few days ago hadn’t really settled, but that night it snowed, properly. We inched out of town the following morning towards a wall of white, feeling very small and slightly apprehensive. The Kyrgyz border guard was less interested in passport checking and much keener on warning us that the Pamirs were riddled with wolves that were ‘much bigger than European ones,’ according to him. We both tried to give appeasing nods, as though we were familiar with the European variety, and pointed determinedly at the dog bashing/bike propping stick I was now carrying. He was not impressed. We passed through Kyrgyz border control and entered no man’s land before the Tajik border under the escort of an enormous anti-wolf guard dog.
In the tent that night, wrapped in every bit of clothing we had, the irrational fear of unknown noises took over. Every rustle sounded like a wolf trying to get at our Snickers bars, or worse. Our sleepy minds rehearsed plans for self-defence. Regrettably, my dog bashing stick was on bike-propping duty, so we would need to get past the intruder, acquire the bashing stick, switch it to wolf bashing mode, and fend him off, all while dressed like Michelin men. Reassured we had it covered, we slowly drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, we were passed by an Anglo-American couple in a snazzy 4×4 who said is was -20°C in Sary Tash the night before, several hundred meters lower than where we’d pitched our tent. As the 4×4 chugged up the switchbacks ahead of us, I got a flat tyre. Bollocks. Tyre removal with freezing cold hands wasn’t an option, so we pushed the last km up to the Tajik border post. “Not my problem,” was the first guard’s response. Mercifully, a second guard allowed us inside and talked loudly at us whilst we fixed the puncture, mainly on the topic of wolves.
Another day spent riding through some of the most camera-battery-draining scenery of the tour and we arrived in Karakul, where we opted to try out a homestay. Having become well acquainted with the notorious Pamiri headwind, a tri-carb dinner of bread with potatoes and noodle soup was just the ticket. In the flickering light of our accommodation’s one working bulb, we double-checked we still had all our toes and readied ourselves for an assault on Akbaital.
Arriving at 4,655m the following afternoon, we were feeling smug at having made it along some of the most heinous corrugations known to man and up to the highest point of the tour without pushing. The smugness was tempering quickly, however, as developing headaches and an increasingly overwhelming cold was taking over. As many cyclists have done before us, we knocked on the door of the only known, seemingly abandoned building a few hundred metres down the other side. After a pause that felt much longer than it was, we were ushered in. Flora curled up close to the stove and I got stuck into reading Black Beauty. I snapped a picture by the summit sign the next morning, and it was all downhill to the UK from there. Technically.
We were sat eating a warm naan and hard boiled eggs that hadn’t yet totally thawed out from the night before, wondering what exactly the unlabeled Tajik military issue food tin we’d just been given might contain. Right in front of us was the Panj River, and just on the other side of that was Afghanistan. A country we’d grown up hearing so much about was only a stone’s throw away. Actually, I’m a terrible thrower, but Flora could probably make it. Lumps of ice floated by in front of us.
Before leaving, we’d stocked up on what little we could get our hands on at Murghab’s shipping container bazaar. The biscuit shop lady didn’t bat an eyelid when we motioned for a kilogram of her chocolatiest biscuits each. We were now riding towards a left turn that would take us off the M41 and due south briefly, up and over a final 4000m+ pass and down into the Wakhan Valley. Having inched over an icy Kargush Pass from our lakeside camp spot, we began a rattling descent to an abandoned village and a deserted military checkpoint. To our left we spotted a chap legging it across the valley towards us, rifle bouncing on his back. He reached us out of breath but grinning, and asked expectantly if we had any cigarettes or vodka. He wasn’t interested in biscuits. Reinforcements arrived (carrying fresh naan and more mysterious tins), and passports were handed over for scrutinizing. As had happened previously, we fell foul of the ‘no picture taking in official areas’ rule and were motioned over to the other side of the office. “The light is better over here!” the senior officer explained, pulling us into prime picture taking position. Deliriously excited at the prospect of fresh bread, we stopped for second breakfast just around the corner and sat gazing across the river. The tin the soldiers gave us contained something that at one point may have been a kind of fish, I think.
We passed two cyclists the following morning, Alexi from Belarus and Julie from France, who chucked us an apple each, a sign that civilization wasn’t too far away. The rest of that day was spent trying not to crash from riding through sand or from staring too long at the lines of Afghan camel caravans picking their way along precarious tracks on the other side of the river. Where are they going?
As we dropped further down the valley, the clouds parted to reveal the sharp, snow-capped 8,000m peaks of the formidable Hindu Kush. A couple of young lads leading firewood-laden donkeys. Firewood is at a premium throughout the high Pamirs. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the fuel supply being cut off, and most houses have a ripped out rusty tank close by as a reminder.
The boys asked if we had any khleb, bread, which we did. We dug out our last piece of bread and put it in a spare bag. The oldest one grabbed the package, stuffed the bread in his pants and lobbed the bag into the most beautiful valley we’d ever seen.
We’ll remember the hospitality across central Asia fondly, but the inhabitants of the Wakhan, passionately Pamiri as opposed to Tajik, were a level above. Even if it was little harrowing to be force fed plov and interrogated on the vitapl stats of the fictional children we felt the need to have, it was equally enchanting to be welcomed without question into a warm, smoky room, and to be among the smiling faces of three or four generations of one family. Sleeping space is communal, and a bed will often be conjured from a pile of kurphaca, a thin, colourful mattresses. More kurphaca are placed on top, fixing you firmly in position for the night.
Having camped since Murghab, and reaching the limits of what a wet wipe wash can achieve, we gratefully accepted the offer of a night inside with a fiscaltura, a PE teacher, and his family in Langer. As usual, we were shown incredible hospitality. When he wasn’t there, his eldest son took over, refilling chai bowls the second we’d drained them, one hand to his chest. We always found it a little frustrating that the women seemed to do all the cooking and serving, but rarely got the opportunity to sit with us. The Pamiri people revere bread to the extent that they make sure to pick up every crumb after a meal, and would never allow a loaf of bread to be placed upside down. It has something, so we were told, to do with it being the food that kept them alive during the civil war.
Poplar trees started to reappear as we gradually lost altitude, as did autumnal colours, with persimmon and pomegranates growing on the side of the road. Rosy-cheeked kids chaperoned donkeys, turkeys, and goats, waving and shouting hellos and whatisyournames. One kid took us by surprise by shouting fuck you! instead, smiling widely and waving. Bless him.
Tired bodies and battered bikes meant we struggled to top 50 km a day while riding through the Wakhan. After accepting another offer of a place to stay, we found ourselves being marched up a steep hill to a local wedding venue. The whole village was crammed into the traditional, square interior of the groom’s house. Inside, a keyboardist was warming the crowd up. Loading up on fruit juice and a third helping of plov and dancing the Pamiri two-step in five-day-old padded shorts made for our biggest night out in ages.
After the volatile weather and wilderness of the previous week, we found the Wakhan very peaceful, but later read reports of Taliban fighting less than 25 km away on the Afghan side. We also learnt, from a slightly out-of-date guide book, that that border we had ridden along was where more than a ton of hash and opium is smuggled across every day, heading for Europe and Russia. Apart from the odd army foot patrol, you wouldn’t know.
About Luke Douglas
Designer living in Manchester, UK. Originally from Cumbria; loves the North. Was a roady, toured a bit, now spends time on wider tyres, torturously plotting routes off the beaten track. Searching for a more UK appropriate name for ‘gravel’ bike. Coming round to the concept of hike-a-bike. Recently spent a lot of time putting together and riding the Second City Divide, a 650km bikepacking route between Glasgow and Manchester. Find Luke on Instagram @lukejdouglas and @secondcitydivide.