Total this trip – 493km
Total so far – 10943km
We left Murghab a day earlier than our cycling pals, hoping to spend an extra rest day alongside Kara-Kul and using up every day of our 45-day visa. Between us and the border lay three strenuous passes, massive headwinds, and some amazing scenery.
Our second day out of Murghab saw us to the top of Ak-Baital pass, an insanely steep (15% at the very top!!) 46monstrosity standing in our way to Kyrgyzstan. We had a pretty epic day, overall. First, headwinds made progress impossible. My diary reads “cycling hard downhill at 10km/hr is very demoralizing”. Once over the pass, we had 20km of horrible, jarring washboard road, making our progress even slower and more painful. We eventually camped just 20km from the village of Karakul, struggling to secure the tent in the loose desert sand. The high point was eating the stroopwafels we’d saved from Dushanbe at the top of the pass – a delicious and much needed sugar boost.
The next day we ate lunch in the village, and decided to head out in search of a “room with a view” to spend our rest day. Fate was against us, however, as the winds whipped up tornadoes of dust and sand rising a few hundred meters into the sky, threatening to choke us and making our progress agonizing and slow. Eventually we got fed up and decided to try to camp above the lake, surrounded by spectacular views of the white mountain tops and clouds reflected in the blue lake. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the tent stakes to stay in the ground, and we almost broke a pole trying to set up the tent in the wind. Tired, demoralized, with no place for shelter and the sun dropping fast, we retreated back to the village and stayed in the homestay. A 72km day, but only 25km of progress, on what was supposed to be our rest day.
The following morning we left early, hoping to make as much progress as possible before the headwinds began. Unfortunately they were already blowing when we woke up, so no luck there. We made more progress than the day before, thankfully, climbing steeply up to a 4300m+ pass, but the road was again a washboard nightmare and inclement weather forced us to scramble for a camping spot just 6km from the border post. The only spot we found with ground where we could secure the tent was about 2m from the side of the road, so we spent the night hoping that no trucks would hit us. Luckily the border is not very busy, so we had no issues with vehicles.
We climbed the final pass the next morning, the 4337m Kyzyl-Art pass that delineates the boundary between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. We had made full use of our 45 day Tajik visa, and enjoyed every second of it!
What a change a mountain pass makes! The descent into Kyrgyzstan was incredible, as the scenergy changed minute by minute. The valley became gradually greener and wetter, and views of new peaks met us at every turn. We descended over 1000m to a wide, green floodplain filled with yurts, herders, and horses. It felt like we had materialized into the middle of a middle-age paradise. We could smell herbs in the air, mint and rosemary, and purple and yellow wildflowers colored the hills. Peak Lenin, the most accessible 7000m+ peak in the world (you can literally hike to the top, if you can handle the altitude), kept watch over us. In the town of Sary-Tash, we met Andi and Anne, two Germans driving their old VW bus around. We camped with them under the high border peaks, and they shared their beer and vodka with us while we shared our Johnny Walker with them (the same whisky we nicked from the diplomatic party in Dushanbe 😉 ). Locals on horseback checked in to make sure we were doing OK, offering us all horse rides in the twilight. Descending from the alpine desert of Tajikistan into the lush green valley of Kyrgyzstan was like waking from a bad dream. “So wait… I’ll no longer have nosebleeds in the morning, I have access to fresh fruit, I won’t get out of breath just going to the toilet, and I can keep the spectacular views? SOLD!!”
The next morning the rest of the Dushanbe/Khorog/Murghab group joined us, and we shared a lunch before tackling the next pass. We met Oli and Dan, two British cyclists who I had seen but never met before. In Turkey, on the way to Sumela Monestary, I saw two cyclists, but our paths never crossed at the monestary itself. Instead I left a note on their bikes, and it was great to see how they were getting on with their non-conventional gear (they only had 2 chainrings, missing the all-important small one!). After the pass it is almost all downhill all the way to Osh, with a 1000m climb being the exception. The landscape continued to wow, with lush green hills and red sandstone cliffs, yurts on the jailoos spouting grey smoke from the bread baking, and beautiful winding rivers. We are losing the altitude we’ve gained since Dushanbe, but loving every minute of it.