Posted by: londontosydneybybike | September 27, 2010

Murgab to Kizil Art Pass – the end of the Pamir Highway!

We spent one and a half days in Murgab doing not much at all, due to the two consecutive public holidays (National Day and Eid) that occurred while we were there. The META office – which is reputedly a good source of information on the region, as well as a place where you can book activities such as yurt stays, which we were keen to do – was closed, which was a shame. So we pushed on in the direction of lake Karakol and the border with Kyrgyzstan. The distance between Murgab and lake Karakol, where there was a small settlement, was just 130km, but included the 4655m Ak Baital pass, the highest point of the whole trip. Seeing as Murgab lies in a valley at just 3600m, we had a lot of climbing to do to get over the pass. With this in mind, we decided to have a leisurely first day out of Murgab, covering just 50km or so, which was as close as we could get to the pass while still having a supply of running water. For dinner that night we had planned a treat – mashed potatoes and onion with cheese, using ingredients that we had been able to buy in Murgab bazaar (and didn’t want to carry for more than one day!) Unfortunately it didn’t work out quite as planned; we knew potatoes would take longer to cook at that altitude, but after 45 mins of boiling they were still too solid for mashing. We were too hungry to wait any longer so they had to do! All the same it was ncie to have a change from the normal pasta/tomato sauce combination, particularly as the only pasta available up here is very starchy and of terrible quality. It was a cold night, and we woke to find frost on our tent – again we were thankful to have lugged our 4-season sleeping bags all the way from the UK! As we were packing up the next morning – thankfully the sun came out which warmed things up quickly – we saw two other cyclists passing by on the road, about 500m away. The day before we had seen a grand total of 4 vehicles on the road (including those that passed after we stopped to camp) which was nice and quiet but also a little eerie – we were aware that should something happen to us we were very much on our own. So it was nice to see some other cyclists. We couldn’t see them clearly but figured it might be Tom and Ollie, who we had cycled with earlier in the trip, and who we knew were in the area. We shouted and waved at them, but the thin air means that sound does not travel so far so they did not hear us. It was some time after they had passed that we left, but we caught up with them just before the pass, and discovered it was not Tom and Ollie but a nice Polish couple who were cycling the Pamirs as a holiday. Their plan was to cycle to Lake Karakol and then back the next day – i.e., over Ak Baital pass twice in two days! Good on them, but hard work not my idea of a fun holiday! The road between Murgab and the pass was good quality until just before the pass, when it became unpaved. The last 3km or so were hard work because they were just a bit too steep for us to cycle without feeling like our lungs were going to burst, so we pushed our bikes up that bit. There were some nice views from the top so it was good to be with the Polish couple who were able to take some photos of the two of us. The weather was fine at the top too, which we were relieved about – it is easy to imagine it being quite horrendous up there if the weather turned bad. We were disappointed with the road down; after a nice long gentle ascent on good asphalt we were hoping for similar on the way down, but instead the road was steep, unpaved and very bumpy for a good 20km – hard work and very slow going. It was also very windy, which made finding a camping spot rather challenging as we were in a wide flat valley with virtually no shelter. In the end we found an abandoned house which provided a good wind break, and so we camped inside that. Again we were excited by dinner – so-so pasta and tomate paste, but with the exciting addition of tuna that we had also procured in Murgab – but again we were disappointed. The ‘tuna’ we had bought (which had a very clear picture of tuna steak on the outside so we were in no doubt what it was when we bought it) turned out to be nasty, out-of-date sardines that tasted horrible. Unfortunately Pete didn’t realise this until it was too late and he had added it to the pasta, meaning that dinner was all but inedible – we are not normally fussy but the combination of really nasty pasta with horrible sardines was just too much! After a few mouthfuls we resorted to Snickers’ bars instead – all in all a rather depressing evening. Again it was very cold and we awoke to frozen water bottles etc. The next morning we only had 30km or so to get to Lake Karakol, so we waited for the temperature to warm up before venturing from our sleeping bags and setting off. The first 10km were tough going as we had some short but sharp hills to get over, and a really strong cold headwind. Then we rounded a corner and suddenly we had the sun on our bikes, a great tailwind and a gentle downhill – wonderful! We were bowling along happily and easily at more than 30km/hour when we came across the Polish couple coming the other way – in contrast to us they were struggling and looked absolutely freezing – it is amazing what a difference the wind makes round here. Shortly after we passed them, however, the sun clouded over and suddenly we had a strong, icy-cold headwind. We knew that we were just a few kilometres from Karakol, so rather than doing the sensible thing and stopping to layer up, we pushed on figuring we would be there soon enough. In the end it took us longer than we thought, 40 minutes or so, and we were absolutely freezing – Christine’s face even took on a worrying tinge of blue! Needless to say we were very relieved to reach Karakol and get ourselves ensconced in a homestay, where they quickly lit the fire for us as well as bringing hot tea and bread and butter for us to eat. We spent a happy afternoon curled up in our sleeping bags in a warm room having a snooze – it was surprising how much that cold spell had taken it out of us. Later on in the afternoon we went to have a look round the village, which is extremely basic and run-down, with a real tumble-weed feel to it. The lake it is next to is beautiful though, and we spent some time by the shore admiring how the colour of the water changed as a weather front came across. The front brought strong winds and a good covering of snow (in September – imagine what it is like in January!), so we soon retreated to the comfort of the homestay. As we were returning we bumped into Dean, who had got into Karakol the day before but was staying in a different homestay, so we spent some time catching up with him. It turned out he had suffered quite bad altitude sickness coming into Murgab and so had had to take it easy for a few days. Thankfully he appeared to have recovered fine. A couple of American tourists also turned up (travelling in a sensible but rather unexciting 4WD), and between them and their guide, a local guy who spoke good English, we had a very pleasant evening. The guide told us a comical story about an unfortunate event that had happened to him in Osh a year or two before. Osh, in Kyrgyzstan but near the Tajikistan and Chinese borders, apparently has a problem with manhole covers going missing – they keep getting stolen because the metal they are made of is worth something, and the authorities don’t always replace them. Combined with a lack of streetlights, this makes for a real potential nighttime hazard for tourists and locals alike. Indeed, the guide told us he had opened the door and got out of a taxi he was travelling in, only to fall straight down a hole. He was in over his head so at first his friends were literally wondering where he had vanished to! He was fine apart from a cut on his chin, but apparently his friends still take the mickey out of him about it! Less amusingly we heard of a tourist who did the same but broke their leg in the process. We are not going through Osh but it is definitely a salutory tale to always look where you are going and to take a torch out after dark. We decided to spend a day off our bikes in Karakol as we still had a couple of days before our Kyrgyzstan visas started. The weather was good and we spent the day walking round the lake. We were hoping to reach a nearby viewpoint, but it turned out to be a bit further than we anticipated, and the ground was quite boggy in places, impeding progress somewhat. We didn’t make it to the viewpoint but had a nice walk nevertheless. That afternoon we had hoped to visit the tiny local shop to buy some chocolate to keep us going over the next couple of days, but it turned out the owner had gone away for a few days, so no shopping for us. That evening we asked the owners of our homestay if we could have some hot water for washing, and were given a paltry half bucket to share, along with a tub to stand in – they have no formal bathroom, so washing is done in the living room. Lucky Pete got to wash with the water Christine had already washed in! Still, we knew this would be the only opportunity to wash in the 10 days between Murgab and Kashgar, so we made the most of it. Breakfast the next morning was even more basic than normal – they had no jam or eggs (or so they told us) so rock-hard bread (so hard it has to be softened using warm yak milk first) with yak butter it was. Considering that we had limited supplies to get us through the next couple of days, we ate as much of the bread as we could stomach, even though it took us nearly an hour to get through it as it took so long to chew! The weather was glorious so we set off enthusiastically, and had a lovely couple of hours riding around the lake before crossing a small pass and continuing in the direction of the border. It was the 15th September, and our Kyrgyzstan visas did not start until the 16th September, so we intended to spend the night in the 20km of no-mans land that separates the Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan border posts. It was hard work getting to the Tajikistan border post, as this lies almost at the top of the Kizil Art pass, at around 4300m. Approaching the pass the road was rough and we had an incredibly strong headwind – enough to blow you off your bike if it caught you side-on. Plus we were both hungry and low on supplies, which was bad for morale. Needless to say we were glad to get through the border and over the pass. The Tajik border guards were friendly enough, but for some reason were very interested to know if we had a GPS on us. We said no so it was a little awkward when they searched our bags and found our GPS unit. We suspect they were going to make up some arbitrary reason to confiscate it (such as accusing us of carrying spy equipment), so we were very relieved when they believed us that it was merely an electronic compass and altimeter (which it also is). The road on the other side of the pass was very steep and in atrocious condition – we were very relieved that the weather was dry as the road is mostly made out of mud and rocks and clearly gets very slippy when wet. We had to take it very slowly indeed, not much fun. We found Dean camped at the bottom of the pass about 5km before the Kyrgyzstan border post so we joined him, and after a quick dinner of noodles and tomato paste we had an early night. It was rather cold (-10c that night) and we were fatigued and feeling the effects of not enough food, but it was a great feeling to know that we had successfully completed the Pamir Highway and were on the road back to civilization.



  1. Hi, i am planning to do the same road so your infos on this page were very useful to me.

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