Khorog to Murghab – riding high along the Pamir Highway

Total this trip: 361km
Total so far: 10450km

Some places are traveler havens, the existence of which passes from mouth to mouth among travelers of all types, and the Pamir Lodge in Khorog was one of these. We met no less than 10 other long-distance cyclists, and even more overland motorcyclists, as well as many trekkers. Leaving it was tough, especially since Hanne and I were having stomach issues, but our visas were running out so we needed to hit the road.

Leaving Khorog, the traveler has three valleys to choose from to get to Osh. The famous Wakhan Valley, along the border of Afghanistan; the main Pamir Highway, where the Soviet tarmac still survives; and the much less traveled Shakhdara Valley in between the two. We chose to stay on the main road, because we were worried about the time required to do one of the other two routes, and because the morning we left neither of us were feeling so hot.

The road out of Khorog ascends immediately and continually. We were following the Gunt River now instead of the Panj, and the scenery was immediately different. The air was colder, the altitude higher, the mountain peaks were higher and stark black and white instead of red colored, the river was a nice alpine green, and the road was nicely paved. The hospitality of the people didn’t change, though, and we were invited for lunch our first two days on the road.

After surviving the moldy and scalding hot springs in Jelondi, and taking shelter when a fast-moving rain cloud came over us, we were ready to do our first high-altitude pass and enter the Pamir Plateau. The eastern half of the Tajik Pamirs is a high-altitude desert, with an average altitude of over 4000m, and we needed to climb up onto it. We had been steadily climbing from 2100m in Khorog to 3900m just before the pass, but the pass itself was steep and unpaved. We made it though, increasing our confidence in our performance at altitude (neither of us experienced any serious symptoms during our time up high), and celebrated by sharing lunch and tea with the local shepherds. They told us they spend 5 months of the year at altitude with their herds, and for 7 months they go down. One man stays up high, though, keeping the road clear with an old Soviet tractor. He said the temperatures can drop to -60C! Better him than me!!

After the pass, we took a small detour to the lakes of Bulun-Kul and Yashil-Kul. Bumping over sandy, washboard track, we had a fish dinner at a homestay in one of the smallest and sparsest villages we’ve seen this whole trip. Bulunkul is the village beside the lake, situated in a depression amidst the mountains. It’s literally surrounded by mountain peaks, with one road in and out, at an altitude of 4100m. We can’t imagine what life is like in the winter…

The next day we tried to reach Sumantash, an isolated village that the map said contained a hot spring and ancient petroglyphs. However, the directions we received from the homestay, and had confirmed for us by some fishermen we found on the way, turned out to be faulty. We ended up along the lake Yashil instead of 100m above it. Loose sand and seaweed inhibited our progress, while the steep scree slopes along the lakeshore prevented us from climbing up. After pushing the bikes for a few hours, we decided to take the bags off and carry the bikes and equipment up a goat track in relays. This was exhausting, lung-busting work, but put us back on the road we needed. When we found the village, it looked like only a handful of mud huts separated from us by a large stream and a huge boulder-slide that was apparently the road. At that moment, a German couple in a 4×4 coincidentally (and very fortunately) joined us. They drove down the rubble pile (we could barely go down and would have had to carry the bikes back up over treacherous ground if we had), inspected the stream, decided it was too deep for them to ford, and turned back. We decided to do the same, disappointed and exhausted as we were, and used the directions from the Germans to help us reach Alichur, our next refueling stop.

We camped that night along side the river, completely alone, relishing every minute of our total isolation. The next morning, after a surprisingly successful breakfast of oatmeal with powdered milk and dried fruit, we bashed and struggled our way along poorly-marked dirt and washboard tracks all the way to Alichur, ate a disappointing lunch of cold fish and stale bread, and used the massive tailwind to make it most of the way to Murghab. That night we slept for the first time above 4000m; I woke up in the middle of the night with a headache and a racing heart, but Hanne was fine. The landscape here is formidable – totally dry, like the Kazakh desert, but cold and with less oxygen. The left the snow-capped peaks behind us after Alichur, and here the rocks are red and brown with small, stunted scrub bush and grass as the only vegetation.

After a short ride the next morning we made it to the Hotel Pamir in Murgab, where we could take a shower, do our laundry, and most importantly watch the World Cup! The group we were with in Khorog caught up with us the next day, so we’ll all probably cycle together up to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. We are riding on the face of the wave (or flood?) of cyclists created when the Pamirs were closed for two weeks. Next up: the highest point of the entire trip (4655m!) and the border crossing into fabled Kyrgyzstan, land of yurts and wild horses.

 

Leaving Khorog

Leaving Khorog

Danger - falling people
Danger – falling people
Our first homestay. In a traditional Pamiri home.
Our first homestay. In a traditional Pamiri home.
Hanne making friends
Hanne making friends
Views on the way up!
Views on the way up!
Taking a moment to enjoy
Taking a moment to enjoy
The elusive Marco Polo sheep
The elusive Marco Polo sheep
Nasty weather forced us to quickly find a campspot
Nasty weather forced us to quickly find a campspot
The top of our first 4000m+ pass!!
The top of our first 4000m+ pass!!
Our first yak heard. No backdrops were used in the taking of this photo.
Our first yak heard. No backdrops were used in the taking of this photo.
Bulun-Kul
Bulun-Kul
Right. Which track to choose?
Right. Which track to choose?
Not this one, as it turns out.
Not this one, as it turns out.
Inspecting the catch. They offered us some fish but we can't really carry it.
Inspecting the catch. They offered us some fish but we can’t really carry it.
Walking the bikes along the lakeshore. We should not be here.
Walking the bikes along the lakeshore. We should not be here.
The views into Tajik National Park.
The views into Tajik National Park, overlooking Yashil-Kul.
Marmots!
Marmots!
The geyser hyped on the maps and at the tourist office. It spouted about 30cm. Glad we only happened to pass it and didn't go out of our way to see it.
The geyser hyped on the maps and at the tourist office. It spouted about 30cm. Glad we only happened to pass it and didn’t go out of our way to see it.
Graffiti in the alpine desert
Alpine desert graffiti. Life up here is hard to imagine.
Alpine desert. Riding above 4000m.
Alpine desert. Riding above 4000m.
The closest we came to seeing a real Marco Polo sheep.
The closest we came to seeing a real Marco Polo sheep.
Friends on the road - South Koreans
Friends on the road – South Koreans Hueng-jo and Young-il Kim
Murghab market
Murghab bazaar

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