Why am I doing this?
That was my thought as I awoke to find my tent covered in ice half way up a mountain. I had put my water bottles inside the tent, but they were still frozen solid. I remembered Gillian telling me she had to wait until the sun rose and warmed things up and it wasn’t until 10:00 a.m. that I got on my way again. I was having serious doubts about my ability to do this and wondered if maybe the doctor was not just being cautious after all.
I’m going to describe my journey through the Pamir’s in the form of a dairy, as I hope it will help others planning a similar trip. So let’s rewind to Dushanbe where I had enjoyed a good rest with a WarmShowers host, Veronique and her son Gabriel.
Veronique opens up her home to cyclists travelling and told me they have had as many as 15 travellers stay at one time – a truly wonderful host.
Clive had asked me how long I thought it would take to get to Khorog, the next stopping off point and our last chance to rest and clean up before we entered the Wakhan Valley. I’d worked it out at eight days (turned out I was spot on for Clive!) but never imagined how difficult this section would be, as Clive took the southern (longer but easier) route and I headed north over a huge pass.
Day 1 – Dushanbe to Takhtakhamit 72 km
A surprising amount of climbing on this first day (1435 m) as after 30 km of smooth tarmac the scenery changed and it was evident I was heading back into the mountains.
Soon after the tarmac ended to be replaced by the gravel roads I was by now so accustomed to riding. I followed the course of the huge river on my right, which would later become the dividing line between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It was enjoyable, but hard riding. I’d decided long ago to not worry about how far I rode in a day, I’d simply let the terrain dictate my progress (or lack of!).
Day 2 – Takhtakhamit to junction of A372/M41 78 km
The scenery was stunning as I passed through the first checkpoint, where my Pamir Highway permit was studied and then handed back to me. I spotted these beautiful painted stones signifying I was now on the Highway proper.
Clive had decided not to take the northern route because he’d been told one of the bridges was down, but I found no evidence of this and in fact the streams I crossed were nothing more than trickles, even after the rain on day two.
The valley closed in on both sides and the river had now become a fast flowing torrent as the clouds gathered and the rain started. It didn’t last long, but once again I was reminded how quickly weather changes in the mountains.
Towards the end of the day I got my first sight of the snow capped high mountains, just peeking through the clearing clouds. It was a pretty special moment for me as I knew now I would finally arrive at my destination which had both inspired and (still) scared me after another days climbing, this time 1384 m.
Day 3 – Junction of A372/M41 to Control Post 52 km
Another tough day of climbing (1540 m) from the valley floor and my legs were by now quite heavy, so my speed had dropped dramatically. I called it a day early and slept for 10 hours, after cooking a nice meal of macaroni milk pudding and dates, yummy!
Day 4 – Control Post to half way up Khaburabot Pass 37 km
The Khaburabot Pass at 3252 m is my highest pass to date and I was under no illusions as to how difficult this would be for me, but I’d determined it would be a good test for what was (hopefully) yet to come. I was by now definitely feeling the effects of the altitude and today’s effort of 37 km took me eight and a half hours – painfully slow going. But I was hanging in there and had yet to get off and push, so was quite proud of my 1524 m of climbing which took me over half way up the pass.
I camped in a small pasture and watched the sun cast it’s golden glow on the snow capped peaks. It was cold once I was out of the sun and I wasted no time in getting into my comfortable sleeping bag, then cooking my meal in the tent awning. The temperature plummeted to well below freezing, a reminder that I was behind my original schedule and myself and Clive would probably be the last people to tackle the highway this year.
Day 5 – Half way up Khaburabot Pass to Kalaikhum 52 km
The final few kilometers to the pass summit proved too steep and difficult for me to cycle, so I pushed the bike until I reached the summit plateau. It was ridiculously cold even in the sunshine, so I donned my duvet jacket and made a hot meal in the shelter before starting the descent. I had seen no-one on the climb, it had been a very lonely and solitary affair.
Over on the hillside there was an abandoned building, I assume they’ve all left for the winter as I saw no signs of life.
I made my way steadily down the long (37 km) descent, on a mixture of broken tarmac and dirt track. I was mindful to not allow the bike to get too much momentum as I was already on my last set of bolts for the panier racks, in fact one was held together with zip ties after the battering they had gotten on the rock strewn roads.
It was an amazing descent, frightening at times but a real feast of adrenaline. I wondered what it would be like on a unloaded mountain bike, thinking this would be the ultimate destination for anyone with sufficient funds to organise a supported tour of the area.
At times the road narrowed to single track, clinging precariously to the hillside with scary drops to the valley. It was no place to be complacent or lose concentration and I found it extremely tiring, not just on a physical level, although I regularly had to pause to unlock my fingers from the brake levers. Negotiating the more difficult rocky sections strangely became quite enjoyable as there is no doubt my bike handling skills have improved enormously over these last few months of riding difficult terrain.
Once I had returned to the valley, I made my way towards Kalaikhum and my overnight camp. Although it had been another relatively short day I was exhausted and found a quiet spot in a field just beyond the Kalaikhum control post, where once again they examined my Pamir permit.
Day 6 – Kalaikhum to Baravin-Tar 72 km
Despite my tiredness I woke early as it had been a warm night due to heavy cloud cover, which made for an early start to the day as I didn’t have to wait for the sun to warm things up. The sun tried to break through and a few lines from the Moody Blues came to mind (see pic below).
The road was now doing an impression of a roller coaster as it constantly went up and down, making the going pretty tough. I met two Japanese cyclists on this section coming from the Wakhan Valley and we chatted for a while and then exchanged details, see http://www.sekiji.net/
They had passed another British cyclist a few kilometers ago and this turned out to be Clive who had taken the southern route, so I set off to try and catch up with him – a big mistake as I later paid for the effort it took to join him. We rode for a while together and Clive seemed quite put-out that he had been given bum info about the bridge being down. I was amazed that he had covered so much ground and it was clear he is a lot stronger than me now, as I let him ride off while I searched for somewhere to camp. The days climbing came to 1665 m, which in 72 km is very heavy going and too much for my tired legs.
The sun did finally clear a patch of blue sky, but a strong wind was developing.
Day 7 – Baravin-Tar to Khorog 134 km
Horrendous. That’s about all I can say about the first part of day 7, which saw me hitching a lift for the first time. The reason wasn’t hard to justify, I had battled for 55 km through the worst headwind (and subsequent dust clouds) I’ve ever experienced and was totally exhausted. I could have camped, but I was already looking at being a full day or more behind Clive in Khorog and so the decision was an easy one. Getting a lift was not, as I waited two hours before I found my saviors, by which time I was frozen to the bone in the chilling wind.
So here I am sat in a cosy office in Khorog, using their WIFI. I’ll tell you all about my new friends and Khorog in my next update. More soon…