Posted by: londontosydneybybike | September 27, 2010

Cycling the Pamir Highway – Practicalities

Road Surface, Gradients and Traffic

From Dushanbe as far east as Abigarm (around 100km), the road is in excellent condition. At this point you have the choice of continuing on the northern (summer) route, or the year-round but longer southern route. We had heard so many bad things about these roads, in particular the summer route, that we chose to take a landcruise from Dushanbe to Kalaikhum, a distance of around 300km (the cost was around $45 each to hire the whole taxi between the two of us, and the journey took around 10 hours). The landcruiser took the summer route, which was in absolutely terrible condition – some 200km of rutted, bumpy, washboardy, gravelly, rocky, dusty road surfaces. Plus you have the 3500m Sagerdasht pass to climb over and descend – and the road is terrible on the descent too, so it would not be a fun satisfying downhill at all. The journey took forever even in a 4WD. People do cycle it, but it would be very hard work and you would need a strong bike to avoid any risk of bending a wheel or doing something similar. We haven’t seen the year-round route, but we were advised that it was not that much better, and that it was not very interesting. Seeing as it that route is over 100km longer than the summer route, it is rather swings and roundabouts as to which one would be quicker. At the large village of Kalaikhum (where we started cycling) the two roads converge, and the onwards route is generally in much better condition (we cycled from Kalaikhum without a problem). Between Kalaikhum and Rushan the river valley that the road follows is narrow and rocky, and the road is probably 50% tarmac, 50% unpaved. In addition to the overall gentle uphill gradient, there are many short steep sections to contend with, which we found surprisingly hard work. The road also becomes quite narrow in many places, so you have to be careful to watch out for lorries and other traffic – there isn’t much traffic overall, but the loud rushing of the river means you often don’t hear it coming. Around Rushan the valley broadens and flattens out, and the road surface also improves to almost 100% tarmac, making the last 150km or so into Khorog fast, easy going. Between Khorog and Murgab (following the main road along the Gunt valley) the road is mostly reasonable quality tarmac, apart from 5km before and around 15km after Koi Tezek pass, where the road is unpaved and in places in very poor condition. The gradients on this section are all quite gentle, apart from the Koi Tezek pass which has 4km or 12% – we had to push all the way up, which took ages. The traffic is light – probably less than 25 vehicles a day, but includes a notable number of large Chinese trucks. Between Murgab and the border with Kyrgyzstan, the road is again all paved apart from 3km preceding and around 15km after Ak Baital pass, and the 2km preceding the Kizil Art pass. The road around Ak Baital is particularly poor, in particular it is gravelly and washboardy, making for hard, slow going. The approach to Ak Baital from Murgab is quite gentle until shortly before the summit when it climbs over 200m in 3km. The descent on the other side is steep for over 5km. The approach to Kizil Art is steep, but not too much – what got us here was a tremendous headwind rushing over the pass, which meant we had to walk up the last 2km of the pass. The road down the other side is in terrible condition (see our photos), mostly mud and rocks with at least one stream to cross – would be horrendous in wet weather. It also has very steep switchbacks, losing around 1000m in altitude over just a few kilometres. It seems a miracle to us that those old Russian trucks can get up it at all! There is virtually no traffic on this route – the Chinese trucks go over the Kulma pass these days. On average we saw 5 vehicles a day (in either direction), most of which were landcruisers with tourists in. Nice and quiet but not good if you find yourselves needing to hitch. Once you get to the Kyrgyzstan border post at Bor Doba the road improves and is good tarmac to Sari Tash, where it becomes impeccable tarmac most of the way to the Chinese border. When we rode it there was still a 20km section in a poor, unpaved condition, but it was in the process of being upgraded. From Sari Tash to the border is slightly uphill for about two thirds of it, then you have a good 20km of steep ups and downs before it levels out at the Irkeshtam pass. This bit of the road is much busier.

Altitude and Daily Distances

We did not have a problem with the altitude, other than that it slowed us up quite a bit, and meant we had to walk up anything steep. We deliberately took it easy when ascending which probably helped. Overall, we did low daily distances (average of 50km, the most we did on the plateau was 75km), and definitely found the cycling more tiring than we would have done lower down.

Weather

We were lucky with the weather (we visited mid-September, which is pretty much the latest time that you can go and be reasonably confident of good weather), having sunshine almost all day every day. Up on the plateau the sun is very strong and you can get hot very quickly. High factor sun tan lotion is essential because you can burn very very easily. The wind though can be very cold – indeed we found that we needed to wear more layers when cycling than when we stopped. Because of the cold wind, if you get wet or cold you can find yourselves very cold very quickly, as happened to us when we got rained upon briefly coming into Bulunkul. We can imagine it could be really unpleasant if you cycled in rain all day unless you had very good waterproofs. The weather can unsurprisingly be very unpredictable – coming into Karakol it was hot and sunny one minute, freezing cold and snowing the next. If you are miles away from shelter and that happens you may well have to stop and camp, so make sure you carry more food than you expect to need. Not surprisingly, the mercury plummets at nighttime – the lowest we recorded was -10c, but we had frost on our tent a few times. Because of this, we tended to stop to camp early so we could be in our sleeping bags by 8.30pm or so, and would not get up until 9am or later when the sun had warmed things up a bit. Down in the valleys around Khorog the temperature is far pleasanter and mellower – quite hot during the daytime but not too chilly at night, and no freezing cold wind or unexpected snow storms (during the summer at least).

Food in the Pamirs

All in all a bit rubbish, especially up on the plateau. Food in the homestays tends to revolve around potatoes and onions, sometimes in a bit of meat stock. Reasonably filling but not that exciting. Breakfast consists of eggs and bread if you are lucky; on more than one occasion we only got bread and butter and tea. The bread tends to be stale and rock-like; don’t be offended, that is just how they eat it up there. Dipping it in tea helps. Sometimes you might get kaffir – tasty natural yogurt – for dessert, but not always. Self-catering is difficult because the shops outside of Khorog and Murgab sell essentially nothing of use (everybody is self-sufficient); we definitely recommend buying all you need there, it’s better to carry it than go hungry. The smaller villages near Khorog may have pasta (but it is horrible, starchy stuff that consistently gave us constipation) and perhaps some onions and nasty tinned sardines, along with biscuits and sweets, but up on the plateau you will be lucky to get biscuits or chocolate, other than in Murgab. You cannot even buy bread (as everyone makes their own), although if you ask in a shop someone may run home and get some for you. We had more than one day where our prime source of calories was out-of-date Snickers bars. As a consequence we both lost a few kilos while in the Pamirs, and spent quite a bit of time feeling hungry.

We never had a problem finding water in the Pamirs – we had Marcus Hauser’s 1:500,000 map (which you can buy in Khorog or Murgab) which shows the rivers and springs, and was accurate in every case. Obviously we filtered water where it was obvious that we were near habitation or livestock, but 95% of the time we weren’t and did not need to bother – the water is pure mountain spring water, delicious. This is good as you can’t but bottled water anywhere in the area, and other bottled drinks (such as the local cola) are really chemically and nasty. We bought cherry powder in Khorog to flavour the water when we wanted a change.

Accommodation

Homestays or camping are your only options (other than in Jelandy, where there is a hot springs hotel, ok but not great, in particular the toilets are awful!). Camping is great (other than the food situation discussed above), the area is so remote there are loads of fantastic spots. We were always able to camp near running water which makes life easier.

We heard a lot of good things about homestays but in reality we weren’t that impressed – if it weren’t for the food situation, we would have camped even more often than we did. The thing with homestays is they are very basic, and it really comes down to how much effort the family are prepared to make. In more than one homestay no heating was provided in the part of the house we were in, no hot water was provided for washing despite our requests, and the family were not interested in interacting with us beyond serving us food and taking our money. To be fair, we had other homestays where the fire was lit, the tea plentiful and the family friendly – these were much better. An issue with all homestays is that typically you sleep in or just off the lounge, so you have virtually no privacy and no choice about when you get up and go to bed – nobody ever thinks to knock, so even getting changed can be awkward. While we appreciate the privations of visiting an area like this, and the fact that of course this is how these people live, we do wonder whether it is fair that they charge $15 per person per night (the going rate) for such basic accommodation and food. This is a lot of money in Tajikistan, where the average wage (including those that live in cities) is less than $100/month, and you can get a hotel room in the capital Dushanbe or less than a homestay in the Pamirs. Basically, we felt it was poor value for money, and we hope that in future a more logical pricing structure emerges, otherwise people will just do what we did, and camp as much as they can rather than stay in homestays.

Permits

We organised our GBAO permits in advance through StanTours, picking them up in Dushanbe; cost was $40, and they took two weeks to prepare (application was by email). At least one person we know got his in Dushanbe in just one day through the Great Game travel company, at a cost of $45. We had no problems with paperwork generally.

Hassles/Dangers

The major hassles we had involved local kids and the military. In the villages approaching Khorog, the kids were often not friendly (although sometimes they were very friendly, it did vary a lot), and would demand to have their photo taken or that you buy whatever they are selling. On more than one occasion we had stones thrown at us when we did not comply – Christine was hit hard on the head on one occasion, it is no exaggeration to say it was a good thing she had her helmet on. They also shout ‘f*** you’ and other obscenities. And the adults stand by and do nothing.

There is a heavy military presence en route to Khorog, and presumably in the Wakhan valley, because this is the border with Afghanistan, and an awful lot of heroin is smuggled into Tajikistan across it. The soldiers either man checkpoints or foot patrols along the road. We heard numerous stories from other travellers in Khorog and around of bribes being demanded. Typically they would say your paperwork wasn’t valid and that you had to pay a fine or turn back. We also heard of people being asked to hand over their cameras, MP3 players etc (although we didn’t hear of anyone that actually ended up doing this). We had no problems at checkpoints (we took the precaution of concealing valuables such as our GPS and camera, and having our passports to hand before we got there so we didn’t have to go ferreting around in moneybelts in front of them). We did however encounter a couple of lone soldiers just outside the village of Shipad (where there is a military base). They stopped us and demanded to see our passports; we knew it wasn’t a checkpoint or an official patrol, but couldn’t exactly say no to armed soldiers. Thankfully, as they were looking at our papers and presumably considering how much money to demand, a vehicle from a local NGO drove past, saw what was going on, and stopped and had a go at the soldiers. We swiftly got our passports back and pedalled on quickly, aware we had had a lucky escape.

There is a very limited military presence once you leave the Afghan border, so no problems once you leave Khorog on the main highway. The soldiers at the Tajik/Kyrgyz border post are friendly enough but were very interested in our GPS; thankfully we convinced them it was just a compass and altimeter, otherwise I think they would have asked us to give it to them. Unbelievably, a friend of ours who went through the border the day before us was shot at as a joke; the bullet didn’t go anywhere near him but when he turned round they were pointing at him and laughing. Not very funny in our view!

Electricity and Internet

Internet is easily available in Khorog, but that is about it until either Osh or Kashgar. Apparently there is an internet cafe at META in Murgab, but it was closed all the time we were there, and other people were told it wasn’t working when they tried.

Most of the villages up on the plateau have some form of mains power, but in general it is so weak it can just about power a weak energy saving lightbulb, and is only on for a couple of hours at nighttime anyway. The homestays in Bulunkul, Alichur and Murgab all also had a generator which allowed us to charge our laptop and batteries when it was on in the evening. In Karakol the only electricity came from solar energy, which was used to charge a car battery during the day time. This provided weak light at nighttime, but not enough power to charge batteries etc.

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