Episode 8: The Ultimate Challenge
At the Junction of the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush lies the Pamir. After a first unsuccessful attempt to cross the Pamir we finally embark for the most engaging journey: 8 days of cycling, more than 8000 meters of climb, a maximum elevation of 4655 meters and an extreme weather. This is the Pamir Highway in winter.
It is 10:00 am when we arrive at the taxi station in Dushanbe. Here we should find a car toward Khorog for us and all our gears. An hour later, the bicycles are packed on the top of a huge 4x4 and we are ready to go. A thirteen hours journey for six hundred kilometres …
The road is beautiful. We follow for a while the afghan border. A narrow river as a natural separation, no more than three meters of water between us and this very secret land. Everyone look silently to the other side as curious as scared of a country we all only know from what we have seen on TV.
01:00 am, I have slept only 10 minutes so far and I was awaken by my head hitting violently the roof of the car. It is to say how bad the road is.
We are 50 km far from Khorog when the engine stalls. It is dark and cold and we are left in the middle of nowhere. The plan is simple: a truck will tow us for the last 50 km. We stop a truck, find a piece of cable and everything looks better. At least at the beginning.
The road is so bad, the massive 4x4 so heavy that the cable can’t bare the charge. We have to fasten it to the truck again and again. It is already 06:30 am when we arrive at Khorog.
We rush to the first guest house. Tonight we won’t sleep more than 4 hours. It is 11:00 am when we start our journey by bike in the Pamir. We are 147 km far from the first pass: Koitezek at 4272 meters. To reach that point we will have to climb 2000 meters. It is not going to be easy, but we are so glad to cycle this road.
We leave Goulberdi and his family at 09:00 after a good night of sleep and a nice breakfast. We were happy to meet him yesterday, a good men with a happy face and a golden smile.
For our second day of climb, we aim to get as close as possible to Koitezek pass. The climb is smooth, the scenery is beautiful and the sun is pushing us. After 70 km, we meet the Pamiris hospitality again. Aidarbek and his son Didor are taking their cows back home when they see us. They spontaneously invite us for the night. They look very excited and genuinely nice. We are happy to accept.
It is becoming more and more difficult to have an early start. We have reached the altitude of 3300 meters and the temperature is quite cold in the morning. Today we aim to get to the Koitezek pass, to start the descent and to find a shelter for the night.
The weather is cloudy and a bit windy, keeping ourselves warm is not easy. For lunch, we quickly swallow some pasta on the side of the road and get back on our bikes for the final stretch to the pass. A tough 7 km ride on unpaved and very steep road.
Exhausting!! By the time we make it to the pass the sun is setting and the temperature are dropping. We have few minutes to enjoy the wonderful scenery. All white, we feel “off the planet”. We manage to cycle a couple of kilometres more before pitching our tent, not by choice but because we have to take shelter.
At 07:30 pm it is already -20˚C (-4˚F). Tonight is a real challenge…
No sleep, no wake up. The night was long, very long. My sleeping bag is well over its limit and wearing all my clothes didn’t really make a difference. I was cold when I went to sleep, I was cold for the entire night and now I am still cold. A quick look to the temperature at 08:00 am, -16 ˚C inside the tent.
Experimenting extreme cold is a very strange feeling. Strange because it slowly grabbed me and eventually conquered my entire body, to the bones. Nowhere to escape, nothing to do. Soon cold was not coming from outside but from inside of my body. Pamir accepts only the brave and to be fairly honest if it wasn’t for my “never give up” spirit I would have probably taken a truck.
On the bike again for a long morning. My bicycle seems to be slow today. Or maybe it is just me. At noon, I already have enough. I want to rest, sleep and most of all feel warmth.
Bad start doesn’t always mean messed up finish, I find the afternoon much more enjoyable. Cycling the Pamir plateau at 4000 meters is just amazing. It keeps me going for 120 km, until we meet Marsoud, one of the road keepers. What a relief! Tonight we get offered hospitality.
I wake up after a long resting night. Yesterday’s struggles look far. Thanks to Marsoud and his lovely family we had a great time. It is not without a little sadness that we leave them for Murghab, the biggest of the pamiris villages.
Today is an easy ride, at least comparing to the previous days. We take an afternoon off. Tomorrow will be a long day of climb to the highest point of our journey: Akbaital pass at 4655 meters.
Exciting day! A 75 km climb to the Pamir Highway’s capstone. We start early to make sure we reach the shelter near the pass by the end of the day. I wouldn’t describe my last wild camping over 4000 meters as a success, so I am not really keen to give it another try so soon.
The day is sunny and cold, perfect for the long and steady climb. The scenery is amazing. After an hour break we start again. It is still early and we only have 25 km to go but the headwind and the cold make it difficult. Also, the accumulated fatigue since the beginning of our journey through the Pamir doesn’t help. It is 05:00 pm when we finally get to the road keeper’s house, burned out. Last bravery to take few pictures in front of the sign -4655m- and we are done.
We rush to the small building hopping to find someone. “Salam”… no answer. “Salam”… no answer. “Salam”… after a long minute the door finally open. His name is Hassan and he has just made my day!
Off the planet, Tajikistan
Early start again and no warm up. We cycle the last 5 km to the pass, the tough bit. Two hours of an intense effort to earn every single meter. After this week, I come to the fight without much energy left. Breathing is an effort, pedalling is almost impossible and pushing the bike is an inconvenient compromise. I take a break every ten meters.
Reaching the pass is a relief I can’t really enjoy. At 4655m, it is freezing cold. The slop is no better than the ascent. The headwind is just killing me. After a while, we come back to asphalt road and a strong backwind push us to Karakul, the last Tajik village famous for its amazing mountain lake.
Our Tajik visa ends today. We have 58 km to go and 2 pass to cross before reaching the border. The day is sunny and the landscape wonderful. The lake looks like a perfect mirror to the vivid blue sky. Amazing!
We cycle along the lake for about 20 km. The wind is and will be against us all day long. Strong and cold headwind for our last day. Maybe the Pamir is saying goodbye in his own way.
We reach the first pass after having cycled three hours. No stamina left and a very strong headwind, I cycle the last 15 km to the border with my determination only. I give everything I can to make my way no faster than 5 km/h.
Finally, the border control appears out of the frog. We made it in time, completely burned out but in time. We get the stamp and start cycling toward the Kyrgyz border control.
Sheltering under the road, Tajikistan
At the time I wrote this travel notes, I didn’t know yet that we would have to deal with so many other challenges, that we would have to push our bicycles on the snow for two days, that we would learn that Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country as well… But for now, let’s just enjoy what we have done. We cycled the Pamir Highway, the second highest road on earth, in winter. The rest is another story.