Posted by: londontosydneybybike | September 24, 2010

Khorog to Murgab – The Pamir Highway

First of all, apologies for having been out of touch for so long. We have spent the last month in remotest Tajikistan where electricity never mind internet is hard to come by. This blog covers most of the Pamir Highway, we will get up to date (we are now in China) with another post just as soon as we have time to write it.

We spent a couple of days in Khorog resting and stocking up on supplies that we knew we would need later on in the Pamirs, such as food, warm socks etc. We also caught up with Dean who, it transpired, had been just in front of us and had arrived into Khorog just before us. We all stayed in the Pamir lodge which we had heard about from other travellers as being particularly good. Indeed it was a pleasant enough place to stay, with a nice veranda to sit out on and even a flushing toilet! They also have hot water, but only during the morning, and from a tank that gives you an electric shock if you touch it – not good for a water tank! On our second night there we went out to the Delhi Darbar restaurant, which is infamous among travellers for being an Indian restaurant just where you would not expect it i.e., in remote Central Asia. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was not the best curry we have ever had but it was certainly nice to have a change from the normal Central Asian diet of fatty meat, noodles, bread etc.

While in Khorog we spent some time deciding whether to stick on the main Pamir Highway, which runs up the Gunt valley to the plateau, or sidetrack down the Wakhan valley, a route that is meant to be very interesting culturally and to have good scenery, but which entails an additional 150km of cycling on roads that are in notoriously poor condition. While we were keen to take the Wakhan route we were a little concerned about whether we had enough time on our visas, as we did not know how we were going to cope with cycling at altitude, and we are generally not keen on cycling on roads that are very rough. Plus, we had already had a few days of cycling along the Panj valley (which becomes the Wakhan valley) and seeing the Afghan side (Afghanistan is on the other side of the river in the valley), and were a bit fed up of seeing soldiers everywhere [that part of the border has a lot of heroin smuggled across it, so there are frequent military checkpoints and patrols. As we had already experienced, these soldiers are notorious for extracting bribes out of tourists)]. These concerns, combined with us having to spend an extra day in Khorog due to Christine suffering a bad migraine and an upset stomach, led us to decide to cycle up the Gunt valley with Dean, who was leaving at the same time as us.

Leaving Khorog we had a tremendous headwind and a steep uphill to contend with, but soon enough the wind calmed and the gradient levelled out to a steady but gentle uphill. Due to the presence of the crystal clear river Gunt the valley was very green and contained frequent small villages, making for a couple of days of pleasant riding. We adopted a very easy pace of around 50km a day, partly because Christine was still feeling poorly and partly because we did not want to tire ourselves out too much before reaching the high plateau. On both nights we found lovely spots to camp by the side of the river, and spent the evenings relaxing and admiring the wonderful starscapes. On the second day we were invited in for tea by a family in a small village, and so we took the opportunity to experience some local hospitality. Unfortunately we were initially presented with the local milk tea, which is a combination of tea, yak’s milk and salt – definitely a taste we are yet to acquire! We did our best to be polite and drink the tea but thankfully our host took the hint soon enough and also bought out some green tea which was much more palatable. As a thank-you for the tea we presented the family with an exercise book and colouring pencils for their young child – items that are simple and inexpensive but really appreciated by these families who simply do not normally have access to toys etc for their children.

On the third day we reached the small village of Jelandy which contains a guesthouse with hot spring water pools – certainly appreciated by our tired legs. The hotel was quite nice and comfortable, and the restaurant in it served decent food cheaply, and so we decided to stay for two nights and to go on a hillwalk on the intervening day. The walk we went on took us up the valley behind the hotel and up to a height of over 4000m, from where we could admire the surrounding hills, before returning to the hotel for a soak in the hot water pools – lovely. One strange thing about the hotel is that most of the rooms have en-suite bathrooms, but the hotel has no plumbing or running water, and so the appliances in the bathrooms are disconnected and useless. Instead there are pit toilets out the back of the hotel, which have to rank among the worst we have encountered on this trip. Not only were they incredibly smelly, they had no dividing walls between the stalls, resulting in us getting to know the other inhabitants of the hotel in a more intimate manner than we either anticipated or desired! We think the reason for the en-suite bathrooms is that the hotel appears to be constructed out of prefabricated portakabin style rooms with bathrooms already included, which we guess were somehow bought cheaply. All in all rather odd though.

On leaving Jelandy we passed bythe small shop in the village to stock up on Snickers bars – we bought all 21 that the shop had! No we haven’t suddenly become chocaholics, rather we needed to get our hands on all the calories we could as food to eat when camping is very hard to find in the Pamirs, and at 281 calories per bar Snickers bars are a good source. The difficulties we had getting food (even in homestays the food tends to be basic and in fairly small quantities) resulted in both of us losing weight during this part of the trip. Indeed on leaving Jelandy we had to return after a couple of kilometres because Pete realised he had left his wedding ring behind – he had taken it off  in the hotel because his fingers had shrunk sufficiently that it kept falling off! It is now being kept safe in the money belt until he puts on more weight!

We had a short ride from the hotel before tackling the first major pass of the Pamirs, Koi-Tezek. This pass consists of 4km of switchbacks ascending 400m to a total height of 4255m- not the sort of thing that would normally present a problem to us. However, it was a bit steeper than we anticipated – 12% – and combined with the altitude and a bumpy unpaved road, this resulted in us having to walk and push our bikes up most of it, which took almost 2 hours – must be the slowest 4km we have ever done! It certainly felt like hard work, and we were relieved to get over the top and to a point about 10km further on where we found a nice camping spot by the side of the river.  We woke to cold grey skies threatening rain and so packed up quickly, hoping we could get to our destination of Bulunkul without getting wet. Unfortunately the road quality was very poor for the first 20km or so, and this slowed us down a lot. By the time we reached the turn-off for Bulunkul the heavens had opened and we got quite wet. The wind was blowing strongly resulting in us also getting very cold very quickly – a harsh reminder of how easy it is to get caught out by the weather up here. Thankfully the s quall passed over and the sun returned to warm us up, making the 16km ride along an unpaved road to Bulunkul quite pleasant.

Bulunkul is a strange end-of-the-world type of place – a small run-down village situated in the middle of a large flat plain surrounded by stunning ochre coloured hills and on the edge of the surreally turqouise Yashil Kul lake. A homestay was advertised so we opted to stay there, and to spend the afternoon walking over to Yashil Kul, where we were able to take lots of great photos including one of a rainbow that appeared out of nowhere following a brief rain squall – beautiful. The homestay was ok but not great – in particular no heating was provided for the part of the house that we were put in, meaning that in the evening we had to sit fully clothed in our sleeping bags as it was so cold. There was no bathroom (instead a communal pit toilet and a small handbasin) and our requests for a bowl of hot water to wash in were politely ignored – washing appears to be an infrequent activity up here where water has to be heated beforehand. Definitely one of those moments when we wondered why we were spending $30 (which is what they charge for homestays, in our opinion a disproportionately high cost for what you get – unfortunately it is the only accommodation option other than camping, and the only way of getting a reasonable meal because food to buy to eat when camping is very scarce and limited) when we would be as if not more comfortable in our tent! A simple dinner of potatoes and onions in some stock (about as sophisticated as you get up there) was provided, much to our surprise at 6pm rather than the agreed 7pm – it was only after the family appeared to go to bed at 8pm that we realised the clocks had changed when we entered Murgab district that day, and the time was an hour ahead. Good thing we realised or else we might have missed breakfast!

From Bulunkul there were two options for continuing on – either retracing our steps along the major route to the village from the main road, or taking a longer (40km) unpaved 4WD track through some hills to join the main road at a later point. We enthusiastically opted for the latter seeing as we had plenty of time and had enjoyed the off-roading we had done so far. The first 20km or so were great – a good surface and not too many hills, but then the track deteriorated significantly (including bits of bog and the odd boulder field) and started to include many short sharp uphills – hard going. We didn’t see anyone else all day until the early afternoon when we came across a Swiss landrover at the ruined village of Ak Jar. At first we assumed they had stopped for a break or to take some photos, but we quickly realised that actually they were stuck in the mud – literally. They had driven off the track not realising they were driving into a bog and sunk before they could drive out. We spent 2 or so hours with them, and some kind local Kyrgyz herders who happened to be nearby trying unsuccessfully to dig them out, but it was plain they weren’t going anywhere without a tow. Thankfully it was not too far – 12km – to the nearest village (Alichur), and so we volunteered to cycle on and try to arrange a vehicle to come back and tow them out. Thankfully  when we got to the village we were able to locate the local English teacher who found a driver with a 4WD vehicle who could go and rescue them. Of course the Swiss couple were willing to pay a good price to be rescued, but we were rather disappointed when the driver (who unfortunately was the only available driver in town) demanded payment of $100 – grossly disproportionate considering that it was a distance of less than 12km (indeed in the end the whole rescue operation took only around 1.5 hours. Considering that for $100 you should be able to hire a 4WD and driver for a couple of days of sightseeing in the area, this was clearly taking advantage). The other villagers agreed with us that the driver was asking far too high a price, but the attitude was ‘you are foreigners, you can afford it, so why shouldn’t you pay it?’. A little disappointing as clearly the Swiss couple were in trouble and needed help – we wonder what would have happened if they didn’t have enough cash on them to pay this guy.

Anyway the upshot was in the end they were rescued quickly and easily, much to everybody’s relief. We all decided to stay in the homestay of the English teacher (called Rahima), who was very friendly and whose home was very warm and cosy. She told us that in winter the temperature drops to -65c because of the windchill – incredible. The crazy thing is the houses up there are all poorly constructed – nobody had insulation or double glazing, or anything like that. Instead when winter is at its worst they just stay indoors around the stove. Rahima has three daughters, two of whom are at university in Khorog. Although Khorog is less than 300km from Alichur, they only come home for a couple of months in the summer time – it is just too expensive for them to come home more often. Her husband is also away, working on a construction site in Russia – he left two years ago and hasn’t been back since because of the cost – apparently he is intending to come home for their eldest daughter’s graduation in two year’s time, but not before. A hard, lonely life.

From Alichur we cycled along a wide open valley which is one of the most fertile in the region and hence contains a number of yurts belonging to nomadic Kyrgyz herders, who graze their flocks there in summertime. We made good progress, covering over 80km before deciding to stop and camp as we found a stunning camping spot, right by a gentle river and with great views of the mountains. We were only 25km or so from the town of Murgab, which we reached easily by the middle of the following morning. The day was September 10th, Independence day for Tajikistan and a national holiday. At the police checkpoint 5km outside of Murgab we came across a group of 20 or so locals on their bikes, lined up for a race into town – an event organised for the holiday. Everybody, including us, was quite amused when we turned up on our bikes! We were invited to join in the race but declined on the basis that because of our bags and relative difficulty with the altitude we were very likely to lose badly, despite having much superior bikes to the locals, which would be rather embarrassing! We stayed in Ibrahim and Anara’s guesthouse in Murgab which was nice enough – importantly they had a proper bathroom to wash in, and a generator to provide electricity in the evenings. We knew that dinner was provided in the guesthouse but nonetheless were a little taken aback when Pete saw a sheep being led into the backyard to be subsequently slaughtered and chopped up there and then (we didn’t watch this but were aware it was going on) -while it is good to know where your food comes from etc, that was a little too close to home for comfort! We spent a day and a half in Murgab which was plenty considering that the town is small with very little to attract tourists. To top it off, the day after Independence day was Eid, another national holiday, and so everything that might be of interest, such as the one internet cafe in town, was shut – even the market closed down which is very unusual. We knew there were very limited facilities between Murgab and the next town of any size, which was Sari Tash in Kyrgyzstan in 250km, and so when the market (which consists of a load of old shipping containers which serve as shops) was open we stocked up with food at the bazaar to last us through to ‘civilization’.Still, we were happy to take it easy and spend the afternoon reading a month-old copy of the Financial Times that somebody else had left in the guesthouse – quite enjoyable really!

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