A Journey Beyond II: Bikepacking The Pamir Highway
Marc Maurer takes on another huge solo bike trip in the sequel to A Journey Beyond. This time, he cycles over 3,500 kilometers through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Watch the film, find a nice collection of photos, and read a Q&A with Marc about his experience bikepacking the Pamir Highway…
Photography by Timo Seidel
The first Journey Beyond film followed German cyclist Marc Maurer from Istanbul, Turkey, to Tehran, Iran. Marc’s original plan was to begin each trip where the last left off, eventually crossing the entire globe. However, in A Journey Beyond II, instead of picking up up in Tehran, we find Marc in a more dramatic locale, traveling through the high Tian Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan before joining the Pamir Highway in Osh and continuing on to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Watch the film below, find a collection of photos from the trip, and read on to see a map of the Pamir Highway with a little bit of background on the route…
The Pamir Highway is a well known destination for cycle travelers. After riding it, why do you think that is?
The Pamir Highway is known for being the second highest highway in the world. At one point, it climbs up to Ak-Baital Pass, a crazy 4655m above sea level. Traveling along it is like a trip to a parallel world. The landscape is just breathtaking. The valleys, the high mountain ranges, the vastness, the camp spots. It’s all extraordinary. It’s also like the eye of a needle for all the overland travelers going from Asia to Europe or Europe to Asia. You can do really adventurous trips on your own or you can pay money for a guided tour. I think all of these things make the region tempting for all kinds of cycle travelers.
The Pamir Highway is made up of a mix of gravel, dirt road, and tarmac. Can you give us a lay of the land and tell us a little more about the terrain?
The Pamir Highway was built during Soviet times and hasn’t received any significant maintenance since then, except for in selected spots. The road is heavily damaged in places by erosion, earthquakes, landslides, and avalanches. And it’s totally varied: there are long stretches of tarmac, gravel, sand, rocks, and sometimes worse. .The area is dry and rugged, and you have to face quite challenging gravel climbs, often for days on end. Even the downhills can be quite challenging because you have to be focused all the time, looking out for crazy, huge sudden potholes that come out of nowhere. I’ve met people who referred to it as “the road from hell.”
Although you were there before it happened, there was a terrible tragedy recently in Tajikistan where four cyclists were killed. Did you ever feel a sense of danger while you traveled there?
I think this was the first ever attack on tourists in Tajikistan. Obviously, it’s horribly tragic for four cyclist to be killed, and heartbreaking for their families. That said, I personally never felt a sense of danger during my travels in the region. Of course there are those times when you come to a dodgy place and think, okay, there’s not really a positive vibe here, maybe it’s best to pedal on, but that’s the same all over the world. To be honest, I feel safer in more rural, poorer regions than I do in big cities in Europe or the US. The people in more remote places are generally more kind, interested, welcoming, and helpful. I only wish that people here in Europe or in the US would be that open to foreigners as the people in Central Asia are.
What was your average daily distance on this trip and how many days did you ride?
I can’t really say how many kilometers I cycled each day. There were days when I could only manage 40 km because of insane climbs, weather conditions, or sickness. And I had some long days when I pedaled over 150 km. Maybe I averaged around 80 km per day, with lots of climbing. I’m also not sure how many total days I was actually out riding, since it’s hard to keep track over the two months I was on the road.
Tell us a little about the bike you brought along.
I was on my 2018 Bombtrack Beyond. I had it built up with a SRAM 2×10 drivetrain, mechanical disc brakes, 2.1” WTB Nano tires, a SON dynamo hub, Supernova lights, and a Brooks Cambium saddle. I’m totally in love with this bike. It worked perfectly in every possible condition and never let me down. And it took some serious beatings along the way. The Beyond is a really fun bike to ride off road, so the Pamir was a great proving ground for it.
What was your favorite experience of your Pamir journey?
This trip was bigger than just the Pamir Highway, actually. I also did some riding in eastern Kyrgyzstan, which I absolutely loved. The diversity between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is especially interesting. I remember Tajikistan’s vastness, altitude, lunar landscapes, and Kyrgyzstan’s green valleys, delicious fruits, and many lakes.
My favorite experiences from any trip are almost always the interactions with the locations: the funny encounters with kids along the side of the road, mixing with people at markets, and so forth…
Do you have any tips for others looking to plan a trip on this iconic stretch of road?
This part of the world can be extremely challenging to travel through. The altitude, the forces of nature, the distance between resupply points, the loneliness, and the problems with hygiene all add up. There are unquestionably many easier parts of the world to travel in. That said, there’s a strong chance you’ll absolutely love it there if you choose to go. Bring a good, reliable bike that can handle rugged tracks, and plenty of spares, as you’ll have a hard time finding them. And on a very basic level, be sure to carry a water filter and a stove with a dependable fuel source with you.
You experienced some crazy mountain weather in the Pamirs. Any gear you wish you would have brought?
It’s nearly impossible to plan for the weather up in Central Asia’s high mountain ranges, so I was careful to pack everything I’d need. In fact, I don’t think there was anything I was missing. I loved my GORE Wear jacket and I wore it all the time. My tent was my safe and cozy shelter during many stormy, windy nights.
Bikepacking the Pamir Highway
The M41, better known as the Pamir Highway, traverses the Pamir Mountains through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. The most common and popular cycling segment is the 1,250 kilometer stretch beginning in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and crossing countless high passes—including the the 4,655-meter (15,270 ft) Ak-Baital Pass—before skirting Lake Karakul and finishing in Kyrgyzstan at its terminus in Osh.
The M41 serves as continuous passage through the difficult terrain of the mountains and serves as the main supply route to Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. It was constructed in the 19th century and additionally refurbished by the Soviets in the 1930s, which is when it was assigned its numerical name. While much of the M41 is paved, most of it has not seen repair since the 1930s. As such, the Pamir Highway is heavily damaged in most of its length by erosion, earthquakes, landslides, and avalanches. In addition, there are several stretches that remain unpaved, including parts in Kyrgyzstan and nearing Dushanbe.
As mentioned in the film, the Pamir Highway is quite the popular cycle tourist destination. As such, there is plenty of information around the web about it. If you are looking for something a little more dirt oriented and off the beaten track, make sure to check out our Tian Shan Traverse route.