Episode 7: The Lost city of Khorog
At the Junction of the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush lies the Pamir. For thousands years, merchants have travelled through this region, making of it the most historical routes. “The lost city of Khorog” retraces our first attempt to cross Pamir on the M41, the second highest road on Earth, for what would be one of the highlights of our journey by bicycle around the world.
Dushanbe, 31st October 2014,
We set up for Pamir on a sunny Friday. Both of Antoine and me are excited. From Dushanbe (Tajikistan) to Osh (Kirgizstan) we will cycle 1251 km, three passes over 4000m and three others over 3000 meters. Temperature usually dips to -25˚C (-13˚F) at night when it barely passes 0˚ (32˚F) during the day. Yet we know the challenge is huge, our expectations are tremendous too.
On former times, silk, gold, ivory but also religions have travelled this way. The road has seen civilization rising and declining. Later on USSR used this road to connect with Central Asia. The extensive work they did, bringing modern asphalt and bridges all along the way, gave birth to the famous M41, the second highest road on earth . Today it is still the door to central Asia for Chinese trucks, even if parts of the road are in a very bad shape.
Soon, the Mountains surround us like the guardians of a shrine. Yet, we feel so small. Silence, wildness, gigantism, no doubt we have entered the Pamir’s realm. To be accepted amongst those giants, we must pass the tests: the climb is long and the stony path tortures our bicycles. It is raining from dawn to dusk. For the first time in our journey, we feel the pain from the cold. It seems that Pamir accepts only the braves.
Our journey brings us along the river. Water has made its way from the uplands to the valley bringing life all around the region. Trees, flowers and grass cover rocks giving to the mountains a very nice green, yellow or red colour for most of the year. Pamiris have also benefited from this vivid ecosystem for hundreds if not thousand years. Somehow the mountains have protected their culture and have provided them with everything they needed to survive.
Leaving Dushanbe for Pamir (Tajikistan)
On the way, we pass two check points. Each time the same story: a quick look to our passports and the officer urges us either to go back to Dushanbe or to go straight to Kirgizstan. The northern route to the Pamir is not maintained since they have opened a southern road, and the pass to Khorog is under the snow. We wouldn’t make it through using this road.
Twelve thousands kilometres, seventeen countries visited so far and we are still in one peace. We may well have more credits and resources than the officers give us. And negotiation is one of them. Especially when it comes to speak with the guards of the Gorno Badakshan Border control (autonomous region of Tajikistan). The three young men don’t really expect us, they are already drunk when we arrive. Convincing them is somehow as easy as unpredictable. After discussing fifteen minutes at cross purposes, they suddenly change their mind, with no apparent reason, and let us go.
On the sixth day, we start the climb to the Khaburabot pass (3258 m), the one which will grant us access to Khorog. The sixth day… It reminds me of a book written by Andre Chedid about a young man sick with Cholera. His grandmother takes care of him but she knows that she will get the answer about his recovery only on the sixth day. The sixth day is when we also get our answers. Either we make it through or we come back to Dushanbe.
From 3000 m, the road start being covered with snow and the situation is quickly getting worse. From now on, pushing the bicycles is the best viable option. When we wake up the next day, after a wild camp at 3000 meters, a thick fresh snow coat has covered all the region. Our progression becomes very difficult, the heavy loaded bikes keep sinking into the snow, and we have no food left. Despite the beauty of this white infinity we have no choice but to renounce.
Winter has taken its rights back. Just two days before the pass was clear. Just yesterday it was still possible to access to the other side. And today we have to cycle back to Dushanbe. It is always frustrating to renounce so close. We have heard, read and seen so many good things about Pamir. Our expectations were huge…
But then, when I think back, we did everything we could. No regrets, no defeats.